Part of Michelle Martin’s job is being intimately familiar with the wide-ranging canon of children’s literature. As the Beverly Cleary Endowed Professor for Children and Youth Services at the University of Washington’s Information School, she trains future librarians in how to best serve young readers, and as a children’s-book critic, she assesses the craft and messaging of swaths of new additions to children’s literature every year. So when Martin notes that something is mysteriously missing from the genre—that there’s a curious absence in kids’ books where one could argue there shouldn’t be—she’s someone who would know.
In the early 1990s, when Martin was in graduate school, she wrote papers about wilderness-survival stories for kids. Over time, Martin began to notice something: Of all the picture books about children exploring the wild outdoors for fun, only a scarce few feature African American kids as protagonists.
Exploring nature is not some obscure topic in children’s literature. Quite the contrary, children’s literature has a considerable focus on the natural world—on plants and bugs, woods and mountains, animals of every variety. And of the books with this focus, Martin found, the majority of the best-known—from acclaimed older titles such as Owl Moon, Blueberries for Sal, and We’re Going on a Bear Hunt to recent works such as Do Princesses Wear Hiking Boots? and Jo MacDonald Hiked in the Woods—are about white kids. A few (such as The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses and The Not-So Great Outdoors) feature protagonists of color who aren’t specifically African American, but broadly speaking, depictions of black kids as small wilderness adventurers are largely absent from the genre. (Similarly, classic young-adult literature about outdoor exploration or wilderness survival is largely white and nonblack; think Hatchet, My Side of the Mountain, Julie of the Wolves, and Dogsong.)
Sure, black kids in picture books sometimes explore urban landscapes, encounter animals, garden, farm, or travel to new environments in their imagination, Martin found. Sometimes they learn to navigate the untamed outdoors as they escape from slavery. But by and large, according to children’s literature, black children don’t hike or camp or bird-watch for fun. In her research in the years since receiving her graduate degree, Martin has managed to locate only a handful of picture books in which they do partake in those kinds of activities. She counts The Snowy Day, the Ezra Jack Keats classic from 1962, among that group, as well as Where’s Rodney?, published in 2017, and Hiking Day and We Are Brothers, both published in 2018. And that’s ... pretty much it, Martin says. She recently presented her findings on the topic at the University of British Columbia.
Martin, a native of South Carolina and a self-described “lifetime Girl Scout,” grew up relishing the time she spent outdoors. She participated in summer wilderness-survival programs as a teenager and spent some years working as an outdoor educator in California. Today she worries that the lack of children’s books about African American kids enjoying nature could send the message to young black readers with an interest in the outdoors, like she herself once was, “that black kids and black families don’t belong outdoors—on the Appalachian Trail, or hiking up in the Cascades, wherever,” she told me. “That that’s not something that black and brown people do, or that maybe the woods still aren't a safe place—that you don’t belong there.”
Martin hopes that drawing attention to this particular vacuum within children’s literature will help encourage authors and illustrators to fill it. But taking note of that particular gap in children’s literature, and its potentially detrimental side effects, is the easy part. Understanding why the gap exists is a much more complicated pursuit.
There’s a multitude of intertwining reasons why books about black children loving the outdoors are a rarity—and “black kids don’t love the outdoors” isn’t one of them, as Carolyn Finney, the author of Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors, put it.
For starters, as both she and Martin pointed out, children’s literature is overwhelmingly written by white authors. The publishing industry, too, is mainly a white industry; in 2015, a survey of more than 40 publishers and review journals found that almost four out of every five staffers identified as white. Increases in the number of children’s books about kids of color in the past few years have brought the rate of children’s books with an African American character from 6 percent in 2008 to 11 percent in 2019, but even so, that’s still a pretty slim proportion. Writers often follow the common advice to “write what they know,” and gatekeepers tend to greenlight projects that tell stories about people like themselves—so to Finney, that black children are underrepresented in this particular subgenre of kids’ literature is not surprising, because black children have historically been underrepresented in kids’ literature, period.
But the lack of portrayals of black children in nature is particularly crucial right now, Martin said, for a few reasons. First, she explained, constant reports about childhood obesity, which has been shown to disproportionately affect kids of color, as an epidemic in the United States make it a particularly good time to encourage kids to run around outside. And second, as the national conversation about climate change emphasizes the growing urgency of environmental conservation, right now seems like a particularly bad time for the notion that natural outdoor spaces “belong” to any specific group of people. “How much of ‘nature’ will be left if we wait [to conserve it] until our society embraces equity enough for black and brown people to enjoy trekking into wild outdoor spaces?” Martin asked.
Beyond the realm of children’s literature, however, is a real-life phenomenon that might be partly responsible for the lack of representation: There’s a pervasive notion throughout the country, Finney noted in an interview, that African Americans just aren’t that into outdoor pursuits such as hiking or camping. As Finney and Martin can attest, plenty of African Americans obviously enjoy adventuring outdoors. But understanding why that notion persists, Finney added, involves another difficult process of thread-detangling.
Finney believes part of that expectation can be attributed to “who we see telling stories” about wildlife and nature, dating all the way back to the manifest-destiny narrative. Often, that story gets told with a special emphasis on the boot-strapping white European immigrants who studied and cultivated the wild land of early America as they moved westward, she told me, which erases the experiences of people of color who were developing relationships with the land at the same time but under different circumstances. “It doesn’t diminish the experience of the European immigrant—leaving difficult circumstances, moving across the country, grounding themselves in the great wilderness—[to recognize] that’s not an isolated narrative,” she said.
Finney draws a long but direct line from the manifest-destiny narrative of the 19th century to the 2006 inaugural “Green Issue” of Vanity Fair, an annual issue that was devoted to profiling the most important figures in environmental conservation and a tradition that was curtailed after only a few years. “The stories were great!” she said. “But they were all about white Americans, white Europeans, white Canadians.” Finney remembers seeing only a handful of people of color represented in the whole issue, one of whom was Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan woman who had just won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on sustainable development. Unequal representations like that one, Finney said, help reinforce the idea that exploring, learning about, and preserving nature and wildlife are predominantly white pursuits.
In more recent years, researchers have suggested that the underrepresentation of African Americans and people of color in wilderness spaces perhaps results from the concentration of black populations in urban areas. Limited access, the theory goes, might contribute to a diminished presence in parks, forests, and other protected areas. And as Martin pointed out, access depends on means, as well: “If you want to go skiing, you have to have skis, or at least got to be able to get skis; you have to have a ski pass to get up into the mountains. To be able to go canoeing, or kayaking, or backpacking, you’ve got to gear up to be able to do it comfortably.” Even trail hiking, she added, requires a specific collection of stuff. So there’s an economic barrier to entry that only people with enough money can clear. As my colleague Brentin Mock has written for CityLab, however, a lack of proximity or funds only partly explains why African Americans visit parks and nature reserves far less often than white Americans.
Historically, the outdoors has not always been a safe or welcoming place for many African Americans. Dating back to the earliest years when black people lived in the United States, “the woods were just not a safe place. That’s where lynching happened, where dogs were put on slaves trying to escape,” Martin said.
And although a popular belief in recent years is that nature in the United States should belong to and be enjoyed by everyone, when the first national parks were being created, at the turn of the 20th century, Jim Crow laws were making them just as unsafe for African Americans as virtually anywhere else in the United States at the time. Finney is fond of an anecdote in which Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King were once denied entry to Fundy National Park in Canada in 1960 because authorities feared that the presence of a black couple might upset other American tourists. Some outdoor-enthusiast groups also explicitly discriminated against African Americans in their early years: The Boy Scouts of America, for example, left the question of whether to integrate or maintain “separate but equal” troops up to local authorities, and didn’t officially adopt a national policy of racial desegregation until the 1970s. (The Girl Scouts of America were a slightly different story. The first black Girl Scout troops were created in 1917, five years after the then-segregated organization was founded. Largely thanks to the efforts of African American women who organized several unofficial all–African American troops, the organization began to officially recognize their troops and desegregate in the 1950s. Some troops of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, however, do still comprise mostly or entirely kids of color, whether by choice or demographic happenstance. Martin leads a Girl Scout troop she described as entirely girls of color.)
Today groups such as Outdoor Afro, Black People Hike, and the African American Nature & Parks Experience, among others, exist specifically for the purpose of fostering black participation in outdoor exploration and environmentalism. But as Mock has written in his coverage of black Americans’ national-park visitation rates, the repercussions of the racism that black Americans faced in parks and wilderness areas generations ago still reverberate today.
J. Drew Lanham, a professor of wildlife ecology at Clemson University and the author of The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man's Love Affair With Nature, knew he wanted to be an ornithologist—a bird researcher—at an early age. Growing up in rural South Carolina, on the edge of Sumter National Forest, he spent his free time watching birds near his home and reading field guides that he and a childhood friend with a shared interest in birding found at their school library.
At the time, of course, in addition to wanting to be an ornithologist, “I also wanted to be a fighter pilot, and I wanted to be a cowboy at the same time. I was going to be really busy,” he laughs.
Lanham’s admiration for fighter pilots came from the war movies he watched as a kid. “I used to watch all of these old war movies, and I would see fighter pilots, and they were always white. Then I learned one day that there were black fighter pilots, the Tuskegee Airmen,” Lanham told me. “Bam. All of a sudden, the probabilities changed. I could see myself in them.”
“Then I learned about cowboys like Bill Pickett and other black cowboys, and how many of them were on the trails out West,” he added. “I learned about all of those things, and then they became possibilities.”
However, when Lanham watched Wild Kingdom—the long-running documentary series about wildlife and nature—“the only black people you saw were the occasional tribesmen that I’m sure were put in … what [the producers] figured was appropriate garb so that they could depict some African scene,” he said. The first time Lanham encountered a black wildlife ecologist, he was watching television while holding his baby daughter in his lap. “I was an adult the first time that I saw a black person doing the stuff that I had always wanted to do,” he said. It was Dudley Edmondson, the writer and photographer who wrote the 2006 book The Black & Brown Faces in America's Wild Places. Lanham said he felt energized and motivated by the sight of a person who looked like him succeeding in the environmental sciences. Immediately, “I wanted his address. I wanted to get in contact with him,” he said. “I wanted to reach out and be in touch with him.”
The lack of African American role models in the field didn’t ultimately stop Lanham from becoming a wildlife ecologist, or an ornithologist. But today the classes he teaches are still mostly composed of white students, and when Lanham thinks back to his childhood years as a self-described “bird nerd,” he thinks that seeing a few more portrayals of black children exploring the wilderness recreationally would have meant a great deal to him.
“One of the ways that birds decide where they're going to settle is by seeing others like him in a space. It's called a settling response. The prairie warbler that hears another prairie warbler in a scrubby, overgrown habitat says, ‘Hey, this is suitable for us,’” Lanham said. “Likewise, when you see someone like you doing what you do, in spaces that you want to be in, there’s a certain bolstering and confidence that comes from that.”
Finney, for her part, agrees that representation in children’s literature is crucial—but not, she took care to note, “just so that the brown person feels included.” Kids of color and white kids alike should be exposed to the possibility of young black people participating in outdoor pursuits, Finney said. “The opportunity is to realize our shared humanity,” she added. “That’s the opportunity, and we all have some distance to travel to get there.”
Martin agreed. In children’s literature, every reader needs “window stories” and “mirror stories,” she told me. “Mirrors to be able to see themselves, and windows to be able to see the lives of other people who maybe don’t look like [them].” Those stories are key to developing empathy, she said. Martin hopes that one day, young readers will look into their proverbial “mirrors” and out their proverbial “windows” and see more kids and families of color exploring the wonders of the natural world.