Dr. Jonda McNair, assistant professor of reading education at Clemson University, is the creator of an innovative program that celebrates African-American children’s literature. Her family literacy project, I Never Knew There Were So Many Books About Us: Parents and Children Reading African-American Children’s Literature Together, used monthly workshops to model for parents engaging read-aloud techniques and teach children ways to respond to books in discussion, art and writing.
Now, Dr. McNair and a group of talented, black male teaching students (who also helped with the family literacy project) have created a newsletter, I Never Knew . . ., to “promote an awareness of an appreciation for literature written by and about African-Americans for children in grades K-6.” Here Dr. McNair talks about her literacy project, newsletter and African-American children’s literature.
How did you become interested in children’s books?
One of my professors at the University of Florida, Dr. Linda Leonard Lamme, really turned me on to children’s books. She introduced me to authors and illustrators like James E. Ransome, Eloise Greenfield, and Floyd Cooper. After graduation, I kept in touch with Dr. Lamme while I was teaching elementary school and she encouraged me to pursue a doctoral degree in children’s literature at The Ohio State University. It was there that I had the opportunity to work with Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, a leading scholar of African American children’s books. These two women have had a profound impact on my life.
Please tell us about your family literacy project.
I received a grant from the Research Foundation of the National Council of Teachers of English to implement a family literacy project titled, “I Never Knew There Were So Many Books About Us: Parents and Children Reading African American Children’s Literature Together.” I conducted five monthly workshops at a church in which 10 African American families-with children in grades K-2-were exposed to an abundance of children’s books written by and about African Americans. I modeled ways for parents to read aloud to their children and help them respond to books via art, discussion, and writing. Each family received more than 50 African American children’s books and the project ended with a presentation and book signing by James E. Ransome.
What was the reaction of parents and children to seeing so many children’s books by and about African-Americans?
I think the parents were thrilled to find out that there is a wealth of books available in which their children can see themselves and read about their history. Being exposed to these books led to paradigm shifts for the parents and children. For example, after reading a biography of Bill Pickett, one of the little girls who participated in the project told her mother that she didn’t know that there were Black cowboys.
How did the project impact the families who participated?
Certainly, the families became more knowledgeable about African American children’s literature and its creators and they were passing on what they learned to other family members, friends, and even people on their jobs. I also think the families gained a sense of pride in the work of African American authors and illustrators like James E. Ransome. It was inspiring for them to have an opportunity to meet him, hear him talk about his work, observe him drawing, and ask him questions.
What did you learn from the project?
I learned that these parents had a tremendous desire for knowledge about culturally relevant materials such as books and toys for their children. The attendance at the workshops was astounding and it wasn’t just to get free books since nearly all of the families who participated were solidly middle class–some with relatively high incomes. One of the families actually drove their daughter from Lexington, South Carolina for all of the workshops and this is more than 100 miles away. This child and her family did not miss a workshop.
What can be done to raise awareness of African-American children’s books?
I think people have to work within their own spaces to do what they can to make others more aware of African American children’s books. As a college professor, I share the books with my students and most of my writing and research is about African American children’s literature. I create the “I Never Knew . . .” newsletter to circulate throughout the local, state, and national community. I also conduct presentations at conferences and talk with my friends and colleagues. I am blessed to be a member of an active chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. that is extremely supportive of my work with African American children’s literature and the local community.
Your “I Never Knew . . .” newsletter is a wonderful resource. What is your mission for the publication?
My mission for the publication is to educate parents, teachers, booksellers, and others about African American children’s books and its creators. I also include a section in the newsletter in which I highlight culturally relevant materials such as dolls, games, and so forth. My favorite materials are People Colors Crayons (available from Lakeshore Learning Materials http://www.lakeshorelearning.com) and historical action figures of Benjamin Banneker, Bessie Coleman, and Matthew Henson. http://www.hiatoys.com
How did working on the literacy project and creating the newsletter affect the Call Me MISTER participants?
The Misters [young black men in a teacher recruitment program] get excited about the books and the opportunity to use them in their classrooms in the near future. They are also learning about different authors and illustrators and developing their favorites. Many of them are fans of Kadir Nelson. They really like his most recent book, We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball.
What response have you received from teachers, parents, and librarians who have read the newsletter?
I have received a number of positive responses from people all over the country. Several professors have told me that they use the newsletter with their undergraduate and graduate students in children’s literature and language arts courses.
Can authors, illustrators, and publishers who are interested in being considered for reviews or features contact you? How?
I usually contact publishers to get review copies of books I’m considering for review in the newsletter. Certainly, authors and illustrators are welcome to send me books and if I really like them and think they exhibit extraordinary literary merit, I’ll review them.
What’s next for your newsletter?
Well, I’m hoping that this year the Misters and I can create a website to put all of our newsletters as well as information about ourselves and our project.
What else would you like people to know?
I recently coedited a book that contains research about African American children’s literature titled, Embracing, Evaluating, and Examining African American Children’s and Young Adult Literature.
If you’re interested in receiving PDF files of I Never Knew . . . newsletters, please contact Dr. Jonda McNair at email@example.com. Here are linnks to three past editions:
I Never Knew . . . Spring ’07 newsletter
I Never Knew . . . Fall ’07 newsletter
I Never Knew . . . Spring ’08 newsletter