The 1950s was a hinge decade for noteworthy and nation-changing civil rights events across the United States, including Brown v. Board of Education in Kansas, the bus boycott in Alabama and the National Guard-protected integration of Central High School in Arkansas.
Meanwhile, there was also a revolution brewing in bookstores and public libraries.
By design or by happenstance, a handful of children’s picture books were focal points of the American movement toward integration in the ’50s.
These kids’ books — mostly forgotten or out of print — acted as subtle and soft-spoken social catalysts.
Nancy Huse, professor emeritus of English at Augustana College, says, “Literature acts as a change agent when a process of interpretation involves various kinds of readers over time and in different media.”
Some critics describe this as “expansive networking,” she says — that is, networking “that moves away from polarized views and closed systems.”
In other words, literature can open minds.
Literature can also work as a change agent because it “involves play,” Huse says, and “in play, determinative meanings are often transformed or contradicted.”
Literature can change minds.
Here are four children’s books that stirred up consternation — and conversation — about integration in the ’50s:
- Swimming Hole by Jerrold Beim, 1950. A young boy learns that “it doesn’t matter what color people are.” A former South Carolina state senator said that the book, which depicts black children and white children playing and swimming together, was “a monstrosity and an affront,” the Associated Press reported in 1956. He circulated it among the state’s lawmakers, which triggered actions by people in favor — and opposed — to the book.
- The Rabbits’ Wedding by Garth Williams, 1958. A white rabbit and a black rabbit get married. The Alabama state director of public libraries ordered that the book be removed from the shelves “because critics complain it is pro-integration. … It is available to readers only on request,” the AP reported on May 27, 1959. The book “has no political significance,” Williams told reporters with United Press International.
- Black and White by Margaret Wise Brown, 1944. The book told “the story of a somewhat ‘grumpy black man’ and a white lady,” the AP reported on July 17, 1959. Again it was the Shreve Memorial Library that took the book off the shelves after the editor of a local newspaper described the book — by the author of Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny — as “insidious racial propaganda.” The Louisiana librarian said she was withdrawing the book from circulation because it was old, not because of its content. “If we’re going to have a witch hunt through our picture books,” she said, “we may as well close our doors. Anyone who’s looking for something can read it into almost any book — even the Bible.”
- The First Book of Fishing by Steven Schneider, 1952. A young person’s guide to the various phases of fishing. The head librarian at the Shreve Memorial Library in Louisiana ordered the book out of circulation because of complaints that it contained illustrations of white and black children “fishing and picnicking together,” the AP reported on July 21, 1959.
Maureen Palacios of Once Upon A Time, a decades-old children’s bookstore in Montrose, Calif., says, “The power of a well-written, emotionally involving and artfully illustrated picture book can not be diminished. Children glom to books which resonate true to them. Their filters are not yet jaded.”
She says, “Ask people what their favorite book is — children’s or adult — and most times, at least in our store, the answer is always a picture book. Warm memories of connections made with the reader, enjoyable story times or even laughable moments remain.”
Making sure that everyone is being represented in picture books, she continues, “should not be underestimated. This is not just about race, LGBT issues. It can also be about positive portrayals of grandparents (Nana in the City), immigrants (How Many Days to America: A Thanksgiving Story) and even economic issues (Yard Sale).”
Picture books “can be the start of a conversation,” she adds, “a thought-provoking concept or a gentle guide to new experiences and understandings.”
(This post has been updated.)