Studies like The All White World of Children's Books and African American Children's Literature chronicle how it was not until fairly recent history that a positive Black presence was seen in children's literature.
In the past, when Black or African ideas and people were found, the depictions were often stereotypical. The expressions of Black culture in supposedly innocent children's books perpetuated prejudicial attitudes. For example, the story of Babar the elephant smacked of colonialism. An African elephant was civilized under the custodial leadership of a French caregiver in the wake of the murder of his mother by the "hunter." The elephant in turn favors Egyptian (Arab, Coptic) culture and civilizes his jungle kingdom. His African (Black) rival is bestial.
But my years of writing and literary travels have found me fortunate enough to meet and work with two pioneers who have done a great deal toward solving this problem. I first met Wade and Cheryl Hudson in the early 1990s at conferences such as the International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English.
If you’re familiar with Black children’s book publishing, then you might know why Just Us Books was founded. Parents Wade and Cheryl Hudson were tired of searching for books that featured little brown boys and girls, and coming up with the same handful of titles. So they combined their experience in writing, marketing and art direction and launched Just Us Books in 1988 to publish children’s books that celebrate the diversity of Black history, culture and experiences.Raising their two children in Northern NJ, the Hudsons found it difficult to find quality Black-interest books for children outside of Black History month. The couple decided to fill the void themselves, and went to work developing their own. But publisher after publisher turned the couple down, some outwardly doubting the viability of the Black children's book market. So the Hudsons founded their own publishing company. The success of Just Us Books and their signature brand AFRO-BETS quickly proved doubters wrong.
From the start the company was dedicated to ensuring that high quality books with blacks as the main characters would be available throughout the year—not just during Black History Month. They also worked to provide a creative venue for talented Black writers, illustrators, designers and other professionals; and most importantly to inspiring, encouraging and educating young people through reading by offering books with characters, stories and themes that reflected their lives as young Black people.
In addition to their roles as publishers, both Wade and Cheryl have cultivated dual careers as children's book authors. Wade's books include Jamal's Busy Day; Book of Black Heroes from A to Z; and Powerful Words. Cheryl's titles include Bright Eyes, Brown Skin; Hands Can and My Friend Maya Loves to Dance.
The Hudsons are also partners, with their children Katura and Stephan, in Hudson Publishing LLC, which recently founded Marimba Books, a new multicultural children's book imprint.