Children’s literature is often not meant to represent reality – I love fantastical, imaginative works. But one place it really falls down is its failure to represent the vast diversity of children, in both the world and America. Considering half the population is female and there were more non-white babies born in the U.S. in 2011 than white babies, children’s literature (especially classic books like Dr. Seuss) is awfully male and white. Unfortunately, this lack of representation means that when female or minority kids read, they don’t see anyone like them. Similarly, when white, male kids read, they only see people like them as protagonists. Then, when books do have diverse characters, they often make a big deal about it, focusing on the ethnicity of the characters rather than allowing them to be characters in their own right. All of which is to say that Ten Nine Eight is refreshing to read.
Ten Nine Eight is a bedtime book, a simple genre that basically follows a character going to bed, who is meant to be a stand-in for the child being read to. The quintessential bedtime book is Goodnight Moon, but there’s also Night Night Little Pookie, Bedtime for Chickies, and the geographically based series Count to Sleep [City Name]. Ten Nine Eight follows a dad putting his little girl to bed. It counts the different things in her room, ranging from her “10 washed and warm little toes” to her fuzzy stuffed animals. The illustrations have just the right combination of realism and nostalgic childhood softness. The counting down is a gentle, quiet game perfect for helping little ones fall asleep. The little girl’s room is full of telling, relatable details, from the “7 shoes in a row” (the cat has the missing one) to the seashells making up a homemade mobile. The book earned a Caldecott Honor award, which it totally earned for its simple artistry.
What’s particularly unique is that story is not only about a dad with his daughter (who are usually absent, mean or at best incompetent in children’s entertainment) and they are both black. The story doesn’t mention either of these facts; they’re just presented as a part of everyday life, which they are for millions of families. But when a big deal is still made about a photo of a black dad braiding one daughter’s hair while holding another in a baby carrier in 2014, this book must have been radical in 1983.
So if you want a lovely bedtime story with some unassuming, welcome diversity, Ten Nine Eight is for you.