Award-Winning Miami Course Illustrates African American Experiences Through Children’s Literature

James M. Loy, Miami University

There is a picture book called Ruth and the Green Book. And it’s not the kind of story usually associated with children’s literature.

Do you know about the Green Book?

“Most people don’t,” says Brenda Dales, PhD, Miami University lecturer in the College of Education, Health and Society (EHS). “Ruth and the Green Book is a fictional story. But it is based on this actual Green Book, and if you go to the Underground Railroad Museum in Cincinnati you can see one.”

In this particular story, young Ruth travels south on a cross-country road trip where she encounters racism for the first time. Along the way, her family is turned away from hotels and refused service at gas stations until a friend gives them the Green Book to guide them safely between the places that welcome African-Americans.

Ruth and the Green Book speaks openly about discrimination, Jim Crow laws, the realities of 1950s America, and all in a way that makes a difficult subject easy for children to understand.student presents

It is also one of the books that Dales has highlighted in her recent class, “African-American Children's Book Art,” which shines a bright light on many of these critical cultural issues.

“All of my students have mentioned, at some point, ‘Why didn’t we read these books when we were young?” Dales says. “Why isn’t this stuff in the text books?”

The reason, in part, is due to the whitewashed nature of various systems and institutions that have historically underrepresented certain perspectives. And the questions raised by Dales’ students are part of a socially conscious line of inquiry that not only highlights the voices of those who have been historically marginalized, but also the importance of an entire genre that can be far more personal and more reflective than most people realize.

In a lot of ways, children’s literature has transcended many of the stereotypes that still define it.

Today, it often channels deeper cultural signifiers that reflect and chronicle battles for equality, such as moments of tumultuous political change, the profound need for continual progress, and more. And throughout her recent class, which was made possible through a grant from the Center for Teaching Excellence, Dales and her students have explored texts and art that cover the history of the Civil Rights Movement, the Harlem Renaissance, slavery and emancipation, and modern racial identity construction, among others. 

This content has also generated three separate lines of original student research, which explores the absence of LBGQT themes and characters in children’s books, the use of collage art as a distinct expression of African-American culture, and how African-American illustrated children's books can be a lens for social justice.

family sits in art exhibitAll three projects were featured at the 24th annual Miami University Undergraduate Research Forum and as part of a national conference at the Miami University Art Museum, where Dales’ class also runs in conjunction with the Spring 2018 Exhibition, Telling A People's Story: African-American Children’s Illustrated Literature.

“An exhibition like this points that out that there is just so much available in children’s literature,” Dales says. “It’s just so vast. There are books that are fun and silly. But there are real serious books too. And it is not only just the words. It is the images as well.”

Because of her collaboration with the art museum, her emphasis on diversity and equality, and an interdisciplinary approach that combined EHS with Miami’s College of Creative Arts and the College of Art and Sciences, Dales will also receive the inaugural “Beyond Boundaries: Intercultural Perspectives and Interdisciplinary Teaching Award.”

According to Shelly Jarrett Bromberg, PhD, Miami University Director of Liberal Education, the award exemplifies what more Miami courses can achieve.

“I see it as our opportunity to talk about race and critical race theory, to discuss what we mean by intersectionality, to talk about some of the issues that we may even be a little uncomfortable with,” Bromberg says.” And I see that as a great way of underscoring what President Crawford wants to do. There is a lot that’s happening at Miami like Brenda’s class. We just need to draw more attention to this really remarkable work.”