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.)