recess radio program

02/28/05
Early Photo Books for African American Children
    by Rita Smith

In 1971, in the introduction to The Black Experience in Children's Books, Augusta Baker wrote, "The depiction of a black person is exceptionally important in books for children. An artist can portray a black child ...and make him attractive or make him a stereotype and a caricature. The black child who sees pictures which ridicule his race may be deeply hurt...The white child who sees the stereotyped presentation of the black person begins ...to accept this distorted picture."1

Back in the last century, in the 1930's, parents, teachers and librarians were hard pressed to find attractive picture books about African Americans which they could recommend to children. Publishers were beginning to look for accurate, representational illustrations, and for a while, beginning in the 1930's, photographs became the preferred method of illustration. This not only remedied a lack of acceptable material, it also supplied positive credible models.2 One of the first of these photographically illustrated books was written in the mid- 1930's by North Carolina author, Stella Gentry Sharpe. She had been asked by an African American child why all his story books were about white children.3 In response to the question, she wrote Tobe, an account of the little boy's farm family and their activities throughout the year. To illustrate her book, Sharpe took snapshots of the children, but when the manuscript came to her publisher, they decided that the pictures were unusable except as suggestions for drawings. The publishers worried, however, "that drawings might fail to convey the desired impression of these children [and thought] that photographs would better record the rich actualities of their lives and personalities."4

Three years passed before the right photographer, Charles Farrell, was found. In the meantime, Tobe and his brothers and sisters had all grown and were no longer the right age for the children in Sharpe's story. Tobe had a father and a mother, two sets of twin brothers, ages 5 and 9, an older brother, and several older sisters. Photographer Farrell unsuccessfully searched for such a family of the approximate ages of the children in the story. Eventually, he gathered children of several families together and proceeded to take the pictures. Tobe was finally published in 1939. Like many adult photographic books of the time, it has the feel of a documentary, with black and white photos shot on location on the farm. It is an information storybook written in simple straight forward language with both text and photographs offering an authentic picture of Southern family farm life of the 1930's, a storybook that all children can appreciate and enjoy.

Notes

1Bader, Barbara, American Picturebooks, p. 373.
2 ibid., p. 375.
3Sharpe, Stella Gentry. Tobe, dust jacket.
4 ibid.

Sources:

Bader, Barbara. American Picturebooks from Noah's Ark to the Beast Within. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1976.

Sharpe, Stella Gentry. Tobe, illustrated by Charles Farrell. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1939.

Copyright 2005 Rita Smith

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Tuesday, 01-Feb-2005 12:46:29 EST


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