A career dedicated to children's literature
Darwin Henderson has seen the importance of children's literature up close. The University of Cincinnati educator spent the early part of his career as an elementary school counselor and often saw youngsters who were acting out because of an emotional upheaval in their lives.
"I would use books to help children understand that they were not alone," he says. "Somewhere an author imagined a child having a similar kind of event or circumstance. Bibliotherapy seemed to help children understand that the world wasn't closing in on them."
Decades later, Henderson's career path has changed, but his passion for using books to better the world for children has only intensified. The associate professor of literacy and early childhood education is dedicated to promoting literature that positively portrays children of many cultures.
"The language in literature delights young children," he says. "It causes them to be surprised about something. It catches them off guard. It gives them another way of looking at something that is ordinary. That's the real magic. That's the real importance of it." Henderson currently serves as chair of the American Library Association's Coretta Scott King Award, a national panel that selects outstanding African-American authors and illustrators.
"I've seen children's faces when they see themselves in a book," he says. "It has a profound meaning.
"I remember teaching at a summer school in a black community (in the '70s), and they had not seen lots of books with themselves represented," he says. "They were very disruptive until we turned these books (featuring black characters) over to them. They began to go through every page. They just couldn't believe it. They were able to settle down and go ahead with the lesson plans so we could teach from those books."
Henderson says the literary world has a long way to go, particularly in relating to young Hispanic, Asian and Native American readers.
"There are still few books being published that feature minority characters," he says. "All children need to be represented. This, for me, is part of my commitment to social justice in this country. Literature is an initiation into the culture of Western civilization," he says. "That may sound grand. But it absolutely is."