Guest Post: Beth Bacon on Honoring Reluctant Readers with Author & Illustrator Charles Johnson

By Beth Bacon

This post is the first in a series honoring reluctant readers.

Reading is the closest thing we have to magic in the real world.

Is there any other explanation for the way those small, squiggly symbols on the page transform into meaning in our minds?

Scientists can provide technical explanations of the way our eyes and brains make reading happen. But I’m talking about the way a book can move us to tears or spur us to action. Reading conjures actual emotions. It transports us to places that are as real as any we’ve been to in person.

Reading is enchantment. Writers, editors and educators have the honor of introducing this power to young people. But reading can be difficult to learn.

Many children struggle to read or are reluctant to spend time with books. In this series on emerging readers, I spoke with editors, authors and educators who are thinking deeply about the issues our young people face when learning to read.

Charles Johnson with his grandson and daughter
Author, illustrator, teacher and philosopher Charles Johnson who recently wrote and illustrated a series for children, The Adventures of Emery Jones Boy Science Wonder (Libertary Company, 2015).

Johnson is a creative writing professor (emeritus) at University of Washington and received the National Book Award for Middle Passage (Scribner, 1998). He also is a preeminent voice on literature and race and a practicing Buddhist who’s written many books about the philosophy.

Beth Bacon: You’ve written a couple of children’s books. Can you talk about your motivations? Did you have someone in mind when you wrote them?

Charles Johnson: According to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people, and in 2012 only 3 percent of children’s books published in America had “significant African or African-American content.”

And, of course, few of these books were produced by black American authors and illustrators.

As both a storyteller and a cartoonist/illustrator, part of my motivation is obviously to correct this dearth of books for children of color to read.

At the time my daughter Elisheba and I co-authored Bending Time and The Hard Problem, the first two books in The Adventures of Emery Jones, Boy Science Wonder series, we had my grandson Emery in mind—that’s where the protagonist’s first name comes from.

I care very much about this issue of reading material for our children. You know, of course, about the special issue of The American Book Review (September/October 2014) that I guest-edited titled, “The Color of Children’s Literature,” because you kindly reviewed Searching for Sarah Rector: The Richest Black Girl in America, by my friend, the prolific, award-winning children’s book author Tonya Bolden (Abrams, 2014).

Something else—perhaps the most important thing of all about the Emery Jones books—is that we want to get kids around middle school age interested in STEM learning and fields. To see the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math as exciting and fun.

So Emery in the books is a scientific whiz kid who finds himself flung into different adventures—saving a bully who gets stuck in the prehistoric period, saving the world from aliens and AI robots gone amuck in the second book.

In the next book we do, he’ll save the future from a disaster.

As a writing instructor, do believe there is a difference in writing for children who struggle to read and writing for those who like to read?

Yes, I think there is a difference. And you know what? Many adults today struggle to read.

The lack of literacy is a well-documented and very serious problem, especially for high school students who can’t read a newspaper op-ed and tell you what the argument is, or adults who can’t read and understand the instructions on their prescription medication.

Humanities Washington has a long-running and important program that addresses this, called Mother Read/Father Read. These are a series of books aimed at helping parents learn to read as they read to their children.

How is writing novels for young people different than writing for adults?

As an academically trained philosopher, I write very complex, multi-layered, language rich philosophical novels that dramatize the quest for the Good, investigate the nature of the self, the experience of the middle passage or north Atlantic slave trade, and the philosophical dimensions of Martin Luther King Jr. as a theologian/activist.

But for the Emery Jones books my daughter and I select subjects close to the experience of a middle school-aged child. For example, the experience of being bullied or of first love. I rely on my daughter for this because she is closer to those experiences of young people than I am.

Do you remember learning to read? Did you like to read as a child? What kinds of books influenced your childhood?

I don’t remember when I learned to read. But as an only child, books were my refuge (along with drawing) from boredom.

In high school I read one book a week, sometimes three, and they ranged from Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels to westerns to Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans.

My mother was in several book clubs and kept our house full of interesting titles, and I was in a science fiction book club, receiving a new title every month.

I describe this early reading experience in the chapter titled “In the Beginning” in The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling (Scribner, 2016).

You are a cartoonist, how does this inform your writing?

Well, every picture is worth a thousand words, as they say, and our nation’s cartoonists (and graphic novel illustrators) are storytellers, too.

In others words, I’ve always had since childhood a very strong visual imagination, and I’m sure that shows in the descriptive passages in my novels, where I work for as much granularity of detail and specificity as possible.

A blank writing page is for me like a painter’s blank canvas—and that is a beautiful thing, a white surface onto which I can project images that hitherto existed in my head where no one could see them.

An illustration from Charles Johnson’s Emery Jones series

Can you talk about the differences in reading, writing and books over the three generations (your childhood, your daughter’s experiences, and now reading to your grandson, Emery).

In the early 20th century, and into the early 1970s (a period still suffering from racial segregation), white, mainstream commercial publishers seldom published black writers and artists. That’s why what we call the “black press” (Ebony, Jet, Negro Digest, Players, Johnson Publishing Co. in Chicago) came into existence.

As a cartoonist in my teens and early twenties, I published drawings and one book (Black Humor, 1970) with black publishers, then from 1974 until today with so-called “mainstream” publishers.

So the publishing situation for black writers and artists became somewhat freer since the 1980s than during my childhood. But today, sadly, and as I mentioned in my response to your first question, we still have a situation described eloquently by author and illustrator Christopher Myers in his essay “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature” (New York Times, 2014):

“Children of color remain outside the boundaries of imagination…at best background characters, and more often than not absent. …They recognize the boundaries being imposed upon their imaginations, and are certain to imagine themselves well within the borders they are offered, to color themselves within the lines.”

So our goal with the Emery Jones books is to break down those borders and lines, and free the imagination of as many young readers (of all backgrounds) as possible.

Beth Bacon: Freeing the imagination was one goal I had in mind when writing I Hate Reading (Pixel Titles, 2017) and The Book No One Wants To Read (Pixel Titles, 2017).

Children who find reading difficult—whatever the reason—face real barriers. Not just barriers on the page, but challenges from parents, obstructive comments from peers, and isolation at school.

What if we authors for children approached our writing projects asking, “How can I include struggling readers within the boundaries of this text?”

My two books for struggling readers are barrier-breakers. They break the barriers of linear narrative; the barriers of a single authorial voice; the rules of separating words and pictures. And that’s just the form.

The content of the books break barriers, too, by directly acknowledging the experience of reluctant readers and honoring those kids whose feel like they’re on the outside in their own classrooms.

Sometimes writers have to go beyond the margins of a book to reach the readers on the margins. Let’s acknowledge and address the experience of young readers as they develop the magical skill of reading.

Cynsational Notes

Beth Bacon is the author of books for reluctant readers including I Hate Reading (Pixel Titles, 2008, 2017) and The Book No One Wants To Read, illustrated by Jason Grube and Corianton Hale (Pixel Titles, 2017).

She earned an MFA in Writing For Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Beth has won the VCFA Candlewick Award for Picture Book Writing, the Marion Dane Bauer Award for Middle Grade Writing, and is a PSAMA PULSE Award Finalist for marketing.