Rare Inclusion



In seventh grade, for silent reading, I took to school PHILIP HALL LIKES ME I RECKON MAYBE by Bette Greene. It’s one of the books in a Newberry Awards Library box set I received as a gift. The other titles in the collection are: THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND by Elizabeth George Speare, JOHNNY TREMAIN by Esther Forbes, ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS by Scott O’Dell, and THE CRICKET IN TIMES SQUARE by George Selden. I chose to read Greene’s book last because the others featured white characters. Why was I surprised I love this book too?

A classmate asked if she could borrow Greene’s book. Her shock that I agreed to lend it to her wasn’t surprising. In 1977 it was unusual for a Black child in a predominately white school to ask a strange white child a favor.

As the school year ended, I worried that the following year I wouldn’t be in any of my fellow student’s classes for her to have the opportunity to return the book. On one of the final days of school, I asked her for it. She told me she had given it back.

My heart dropped. I didn’t own many books. And my only box set collection was incomplete without PHILIP HALL LIKES ME I RECKON MAYBE. I replied that she didn’t give it back. She insisted she did. The expression on her face was one of offense, but not surprise. She thought I was accusing her of stealing. I walked away sure that she still had it and didn’t know it.

The next year, before my family moved again, this student approached me holding out the book. Its cover was bent, and the pages puffed out in the way much loved books are. An apology showed on her face. She must have really enjoyed the book. Maybe a sibling or a friend also read it. I almost told her to keep it. But I didn’t want her to think I was offended by her or the condition of the book.

As I seek to publish children’s literature, the reason why that student was bold enough to approach a strange white girl for a book is evident. She was thirsty for literature that represented her. How sick she must have been reading stories with characters in which she couldn’t identify.

Today, amongst the vastness of white stories, it’s easier, but still challenging, to find books with Black characters that tell stories other than ones on injustices. We need these books, and more of them. However, there’s also a scarcity of books with non-white characters in other everyday situations. Ones that feature topics any child would like to read: friendship, pets, relationships, adventure. No wonder that classmate longed to read PHILIP HALL LIKES ME I RECKON MAYBE.

I’m glad the author isn’t pictured on the inside cover. If that seventh grader could’ve googled the author, she’d face a white Bette Greene. How disappointing would it have been for her to not find an own-voice author?

I hold PHILIP HALL LIKES ME I RECKON MAYBE in my hand, thinking about that student. Fellow story-lover, if you’re out there, I hope you found other books as a child that you could love as much as Greene’s. Maybe you didn’t. Maybe you’ve had to write them yourself.

CONVERSATION

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