By John N. Mitchell
In the 12 years that he spent teaching in the School District of Philadelphia, Andrew Vassall saw children struggle daily with issues that he wanted to address.
But he wasn’t exactly sure how.
Years later, Vassall, now a fifth-grade teacher at the Elkins Park School in Cheltenham, thinks he has found a starting place with the publication of his first book, “The Black Crayon.”
“The Black Crayon,” Vassall says, “is a colorful, vibrant and captivating story of a box of colorful crayons with one black crayon who struggles to be accepted. With the love of a little girl, Laila, the black crayon begins to see his inner beauty. The book teaches self-awareness and cultural awareness to young children.”
The crayon shares a box with other crayons, all of whom are taken out and used daily by other children. Meanwhile, the black crayon never gets used. He begins to think that his color is the reason he is ignored and, as the days and weeks go by, his self-esteem dwindles and he begins to doubt his self-worth.
One day, Laila pulls him from the box. She draws a castle, a night sky, a princess, a bed for the princess and her pets as well — all with the black crayon. He eventually sheds tears of joy, and he learns “never to doubt himself, always be proud of who he is, and that black can be used in any picture because black is beautiful.”
Vassall, who is working on a doctorate in reading and literacy, said the idea for the book stems from the 1940s “Doll test” conducted by Kenneth and Mamie Clark. In the experiment, children of different races ages 3 to 7 were given four dolls of different colors and asked to identify which they preferred. Overwhelmingly, the children preferred the white dolls, which led Clark to conclude that “prejudice, discrimination and segregation” created feelings of inferiority among Black children.
Vassall sees the book, illustrated by Unc Jon, as an attack on racial perceptions and as a mechanism to encourage children, particularly African Americans and children in low-income homes, to become more avid readers.
While he was teaching in Philadelphia, Vassall said, he often became frustrated teaching children sometimes reading as many as three years below grade level.
“I wanted to do something that would both help build esteem in students and spark in them a desire to be more excited about reading, especially in urban areas,” Vassall said. “That’s why I went back to school.”
Vassall said “The Black Crayon” can be purchased both in stores and online. He has sold it locally at a number of events. During a Black History Month event at Cheltenham High School, his alma mater, Vassall was joined by his former elementary school teacher who was stunned to learn that her former student was not only teaching but also writing children’s books.
“I must have taught more than 800 students, so it’s rewarding when you see that one is following in your footsteps,” retired teacher Sydney Tiller said. “And to see that he has written such a delightful book that I know is going to encourage reading among students makes you feel good.”
A father of three children, Vassall, 47, has had his hands full raising a family and working on a doctorate. However, he says he has been bitten by the publishing bug and plans to publish another book looking at blended families and changing family dynamics during the summer.
“It’s a great outlet and great way to encourage reading and teaching,” Vassall said. “I’m excited about doing this work.”
This article originally appeared in The Philadelphia Tribune.