Once upon a time: Professor studies underrepresented groups in children's books

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — There are more ways than one to interpret children's stories, and Vivian Yenika-Agbaw's unique view of them has led to her being named to the board of the International Research Society for Children's Literature (IRSCL).

The professor of education (literature and literacy) in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction in Penn State's College of Education has written articles and books focused on her research that deals with the experiences of underrepresented groups in children’s and young adult literature and what that means.

"You have a good population of people who are being historically marginalized in books for children," Yenika-Agbaw said. "The kinds of images that are presented have the potential to affect the reader in certain ways — self-perception and how others perceive them. I've done a lot of research on things like that, starting with research on how Africans are represented, how blacks are represented, and also how people with disabilities are represented in children's literature.

"Because of that, I feel my voice becomes stronger and stronger and people seem to receive my work well," she said.

The IRSCL, which has members from 40 countries worldwide, promotes academic research and scholarship into children's and youth literature, reading and related fields. The board most recently convened in Toronto, and is planning for its next convention in Stockholm. It also facilitates cooperation between researchers in different countries and in different branches of learning, and initiates and coordinates research as well as discussion of professional and theoretical issues.

Yenika-Agbaw's scholarly passion in children's literature began when she first started her doctoral program, she said. "It became very obvious to me there were very few books out there about African children, and it was very interesting because I'd not even thought about it," she said. "Growing up, just reading stories from Europe and North America, you take for granted that there would be stories about every child, but I didn't realize there were not.

"That in itself piqued my interest and I started asking the question, 'What kind of images of West Africa may appear in books that are available about African children?' That led me to doing research about West Africa focusing on the English-speaking region."

She said she began to see images in books of African children portrayed in unflattering ways, and that led to additional research questions: "How is it for black children here in the U.S., how are black children constructed in children's literature?" she queried. "Do they have stories about West African children and, if so, what kind of images are embedded in these stories and what kind of messages do these stories convey about being African, and what might be possible implications for this?"

Thus began a deeper, more detailed look into how authors have tried to tell these stories, or retell fairy tales in ways that accommodate the cultural experiences of black children.

"I began to look at the different versions of Black Cinderella that are out there and tried to see the differences; and how authors construct these stories about black children — African-American children, African children, Jamaican children – blacks everywhere in the continent and the diaspora … how children might begin to see themselves and their culture represented somehow in such retold fairy tales," Yenika-Agbaw said.

"This type of research began to receive a lot of attention, published in an article, 'Black Cinderella:  Multicultural Literature and School Curriculum,' where I am arguing that each of these versions is retold within a particular socio-cultural and historical context," she said.

Further wonderings included how history impacts the way stories are retold, as well as how picture-book retellings of Hans Christian Andersen’s tales portrayed disabilities in books such as "Thumbelina," "The Little Mermaid," The "Steadfast Tin Soldier" and "The Ugly Duckling."

"Do children really pay attention to this and, if so, what does it mean?" Yenika-Agbaw said. "Most of my research looks at the forms of representations on how the power issues are being played out, power among races, among classes, among genders, and among able-bodied and people with disabilities. I generally use a critical multicultural analysis lens to examine these power dynamics."

What she's attempting to do, Yenika-Agbaw said, is to let people understand the core of her research, which focuses on how underrepresented people/cultures are viewed in children’s literature.

"I kind of feel validated; I was just excited," she said about being elected to the IRSCL board. "People get entertained by children's literature and we're trying to get the public to understand that it's a serious subject of scholarship too."

The primary reason Yenika-Agbaw feels honored is because she believes peers have been listening and that her work has made an impact in the field.

"This is a very prestigious organization that was started in 1969 and I am the first black scholar to ever be elected to that board," she said. "We have to give voices again to everybody in terms of the stories that we share in the classroom.  It is important to know that we can no longer ignore stories from other cultures."

Overall, she says images found in children’s books often still do not flatter children of color, but there is a global attempt to rethink how these children’s experiences are constructed.

"I began to notice a certain kind of pattern that it's not just African images, but black children in general constructed in ways that are very unflattering," she said. "What does that mean and why is that?  There is a sense of fulfillment to finally be at a point where we have to do something about it; and where we have publishers coming on board due to the pressure from various organizations including the weneeddiversebooks.org movement.

"To be part of an endeavor whereby you and your peers from all over the world meet to deliberate on issues of social justice, as they impact our field is gratifying. I'm doing my own little part," Yenika-Agbaw said.

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Last Updated November 14, 2017