Where have all the black children gone?
Black children are hard to find. Hard, that is, if you're searching between the covers of children's books or on the shelves of bookstores. Black authors of children's books are equally rare. And this situation is hardly new. True, during the conscience-stricken 1960s there was an outcry about the lack of children's books about blacks. As a result, in the years between the mid-'60s and late '70s there was a gratifying increase in the numbers of such books. There was also the promise of continuing progress as a spate of black writers - Virginia Hamilton, Lucille Clifton, Eloise Greenfield, Sharon Bell Mathis, Walter Dean Myers, and John Steptoe, to name a few - broke into print with the major publishers.
It was a time when we recognized that if we wanted black children to become readers, it was important for them to find themselves and their lives reflected in the literature we exposed them to. Before that time they had been either excluded from books or portrayed in such negative ways that exclusion would have been preferable. People also recognized that literature is a way that all children can connect with the lives of others, and come to appreciate both the diversity and the universality in the human condition.
But the '80s are more conservative. The fountain has slowed to a trickle, and the list of black authors remains small. Add Jeanette Caines, Brenda Wilkinson, Rosa Guy, Lorenz Graham, Mildred Pitts Walter, Ianthe Thomas. Add writers for adults who also write for youth - Julius Lester, Alice Childress, June Jordan, Kristin Hunter - and the list remains at fewer than two dozen.
There is good news, however. Virginia Hamilton, one of the finest American writers of children's books, is in a very productive period. She has published three juvenile novels in the past two years: Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush (Philomel), in which Teresa explores her past, guided by the ghost of her mother's youngest brother; The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl (Harper), which weaves African and Afro-American myth and history into a family story; and Willie Bea and the Time the Martians Landed (Greenwillow), chronicling the adventures of a young girl on the night of the Orson Welles Halloween broadcast hoax. Also, her first ''young adult'' novel, A Little Love, is due out this year. While each of these books is unique, each has a touch of that special Hamilton magic.
At least one new star seems to be rising. In 1982, Joyce Carol Thomas was the co-winner of the American Book Award for Marked by Fire (Avon), which follows the growth of a young girl called Abysinnia in a rural black community in Oklahoma. It has been followed by a sequel, Bright Shadow (Avon), about Abysinnia's life as a young woman.
More good news: Last year saw the appearance of another book in Lucille Clifton's Everett Anderson series.
Lucille Clifton first introduced this irrepressible youngster in back 1970 when he was ''six and full of tricks.'
In Everett Anderson's Goodbye (Holt), his father has died and Everett must come to grips with his loss. This is a moving story, poetic and touching in its simplicity.
Mildred Pitts Walter published two new books last year, in addition to her 1982 title The Girl on the Outside (Lothrop), a fictionalized account of desegregation at Little Rock's Central High School in 1957. The two newer ones are My Mama Needs Me (Lothrop), a picture book about coping with a new sibling, and Because We Are (Lothrop), a junior novel about the trials of a high school senior struggling to find herself.
The past couple of years have also seen controversy over books about blacks, most notably with Jake and Honeybunch Go to Heaven, by Margot Zemach (Farrar), and Big Sixteen, by Mary Calhoun (Morrow). Both incorporate material from Afro-American folklore, and critics charge that they create distortions and perpetuate old stereotypes.
So the news is mixed. Most black writers who started in the last 10 years or so are still writing, but only one or two new ones surface from time to time. Good children's books about blacks continue to be published, but not nearly enough.
Some recommended books
Bang, Molly. Ten, Nine, Eight. New York: Greenwillow. 1983. 24 pp. $10. A bedtime counting book.
Caines, Jeanette. Just Us Women. Illus. by Pat Cummings. New York: Harper & Row. 1982. 32 pp. $9.95. A girl and her aunt on a trip ''down home.''
Clifton, Lucille. Everett Anderson's Goodbye. Illus. by Ann Grifalconi. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 1983. 32 pp. $9.95. (Described above.)
Hamilton, Virginia. Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush. New York: Philomel, 1982. 224 pp. $10.95. Tree learns to understand her family and herself.
Hamilton, Virginia. Willie Bea and the Time the Martians Landed. New York: Greenwillow. 1983. 208 pp. $11. Willie on her stilts facing down the ''Martians.''
Lester, Julius. This Strange New Feeling. New York: Dial. 1982. 160 pp. $10. 95. Three stories about former slave couples experiencing freedom for the first time.
Walter, Mildred Pitts. My Mama Needs Me. Illus. by Pat Cummings. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard. 1983. 32 pp. $9. Jason finds reassurance about his place in the family when a new baby sister arrives.