I was four or five years old when someone — I don’t remember who — gave me a copy of Corduroy, the story of a lonely little girl and an imperfect teddy bear who become friends. I'll never forget the impact this book had on me.
Corduroy was the first time I ever looked in a book and saw a character who looked like me. Until Corduroy it was all talking animals and little white boys and girls. The princes and princesses were also always white. The funny thing is, I was so used to the status quo, it never even occurred to me that I didn't see myself reflected in my children's books until I actually saw myself. I remember being surprised, then thrilled when I turned that page and there she was. Lisa. The little girl who could have been me. I never knew a black girl could be the shero of a book.
Sadly, Don Freeman died in 1978, only three years after I was born and at least a year before I fell in love with his most famous work. I wish I could thank him for what he did not only for me, but for all the other little black girls who have ever picked up a copy of Corduroy and thought to themselves, Wow. It's me.
What Don Freeman — who was a white man, by the way — did in 1968 by making Lisa black was remarkable for the era. I once scoured the internet trying to find out if it was his intention to make a social statement, and I almost came up empty-handed until I stumbled upon this and discovered Lisa was a real person. Who knew?
In 2008, I was in Barnes & Noble and saw the 40th anniversary edition of Corduroy displayed prominently in the store. Of course I bought it. But I also bought another copy to give to a friend whose little girl was turning five in a few days. Thus began a tradition of gifting a copy of Corduroy to the children in my life. I give Corduroy to children without regard to race, but it is especially significant for me when I give it to a black child. Although books with diverse characters are more abundant these days, I still hope they see themselves in Lisa they way I did.
I keep my copy of Corduroy on the coffee table in my office and page through it often. It’s a sweet story that still resonates. If you’ve never read it, I hope you will soon.