Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Roy makes a car

About a year ago, I picked up a book called "Roy makes a car".  It's a wonderful kids' book, with all the selling points.  It's got cars and tools, flying, races, transforming, even angels going around in cars and God making a deal with a person.  The illustrations are great, and the pedigree can't get any better; it's based on a tall tale collected by Zora Neale Hurston in her anthropological endeavors in her hometown of Eatonville, Florida.  It is an unpretentious book--my kids' attention wasn't drawn to it for a few months, but then all of a sudden there was a phase where it was all they wanted to read.

So where can you get this book, you may ask?  Well, not much of anywhere, unless you live near a library with ambitious multicultural librarians but rather unadventurous, latently racist readers.  "Roy makes a car" appears to be out of print.  I got it for about 50 cents from a library that sells books that don't circulate much.  I guess the reason that this wonderful book is no longer either in print, nor does it seem to attract library borrowers, is that the main character has black skin, and I think a lot of parents (and their quick-learning kids) tend to steer clear of "black books".  Nevermind that it's really a car book, an angel book, a tools book, a goofy book.  The characters aren't even all black.  My anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that middle-class white parents (and the multi-colored immigrant parents that aspire to acting like middle-class white people) simply aren't interested in a book with a black guy drawn on the cover. 

I make this generalization from my old neighborhood library in northern Virginia, a very active library with a great kids' section and lots of devoted parents (of all colors except black) coming at all hours with their kids.  You can tell that the librarians, some of whom are black, really try to cast a broad net in their book purchases, acquiring a wide, innovative range of stories, perspectives, even language.  But they have a policy that if a book hasn't circulated more than a few times in the past few years, they sell it for a song.  When you look at the books for sale, a remarkable proportion, especially of the kids' books, are "colored" books.  There are histories of Native Americans and their struggles against the colonists, beautifully-illustrated histories of ancient African empires, and lots of easy-reading picture books about immigrants or the Great Migration or other themes that just don't seem to interest middle-of-the-road white Anglos or upwardly-mobile immigrants to the US.  It is a sad commentary on what people find valuable for exposing themselves and their kids to.  Though, as with the travesty of food waste in relation to my dumpster diving, the situation favors people like me who are thrilled to pick up great kids' books on people of color for less than a dollar!

I'm looking forward to an upcoming trip back home to Chicago, with its massive library system.  There I'll be able to find another "black book" I've become interested in, "Popo and Fifina", written by Langston Hughes and set in Haiti.  It is also no longer in print, presumably for the same ridiculous lack of market caché discussed above, but luckily the Chicago Public Library keeps even unhip books for posterity, and isn't so quick to sell them off as a smaller town's system might be.

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