Image by Anne Zane Shanks/Saturday Review
Why we need diverse books
“Why are they always white children?”
It’s a question a five-year-old black girl posed to the author of a bold 1965 article–“The All-White World of Children’s Books” by Nancy Larrick in the Saturday Review.
It’s a question I’ve wondered about too. As a writer and editor by trade, I am a hyper-critical reader of my kid’s books. I get so dang angsty when I come across clunky syntax or some dreadful grammatical error or flimsy character/plot development. I am also bothered by the extent to which white characters and narratives are dominant in children’s literature. This isn’t helping anyone. I, for one, want my son to read books that help him both make sense of his own experiences and learn from the experiences of others.
The 1965 Review article states that about 9 percent of books that year included one or more people of color (the article uses a different term). That number has risen at least a little since then, right? Alas, wrong. According to numbers gathered by the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the percentage of books by and/or about people of color in 2012 was… 9 percent. Yes, the number is the same as the year Selma took place. Between 1994 and 2012, the number hovered between 7 and 12 percent. Meanwhile, 37 percent of the U.S. population are people of color.
The 1965 article concludes that the cause of the diversity gap is the publishing industry submitting to the pressure of bigots. In a similar article published just last year in the New York Times, “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature,” Christopher Myers writes that “the villain here is elusive,” settling on “The Market” as the culprit:
“… The Market is so comfortably intangible that no one is worried I will go knocking down any doors. The Market, I am told, just doesn’t demand this kind of book, doesn’t want book covers to look this or that way. …”
Image via Lee & Low Publishers
In effect, as one Harlem school district librarian told the Review, “publishers have participated in a cultural lobotomy.”
That “lobotomy” deeply harms children from diverse backgrounds. As one report on literacy commented,
“When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part.”
The narrow representation in children’s books also affects white children and the larger culture. White parents are much less likely to talk to their children about racial issues, assuming that kids are Lockean blank slates and as long as they aren’t overtly racist, the kids will turn out fine. But as numerous studies show, children demonstrate racial preference or prejudice as young as 30 months. (Adults aren’t perfect either.) This 2014 Slate article explores what shapes these early prejudices:
“Beverly Tatum, a race-relations scholar and the president of Spelman College in Atlanta, has referred to this pervasive cultural message as a ‘smog in the air,’ noting that ‘we don’t breathe it because we like it. We don’t breathe it because we think it’s good for us. We breathe it because it’s the only air that’s available.’ Ultimately, kids may infer that the patterns they see in privilege and status are caused by inherent differences between groups. In other words, they may start to think that whites have more privilege because they are inherently, somehow, smarter or better.”
Last year, author Walter Dean Myers wrote in the New York Times :
“Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books? Where are the future white personnel managers going to get their ideas of people of color? Where are the future white loan officers and future white politicians going to get their knowledge of people of color? Where are black children going to get a sense of who they are and what they can be?”
The bibliophile in me is pained that books–wonderful books!–can be part of that “smog.” (Lobotomy! Smog! What vivid imagery we have going here.)
We must clean up the air, if only in our own sphere of influence. We can choose to read and support books that reflect authentic, empowering stories of diverse people and experiences. Every child deserves to recognize himself or herself in a story, to feel that his or her story is one worth telling, worth reading about, worth understanding.
How to support diversity in children’s literature
Read books that reflect diversity. Obviously. Though the numbers I’ve mentioned here mainly focus on white-vs.-people-of-color representation, diversity is so much more than that. As the Association for Library Service to Children suggests, we need books that foster understanding of “diversity based upon culture, ethnicity, linguistic ability, religion, physical ability, immigration status, and sexual orientation.” You can find lists of book ideas here and here, and check out some books I’m reading below.
Be a critical reader. Just because there is, say, a person of color on the cover doesn’t guarantee it’s a beneficial book. The ALSC shares a few things to look out for:
- A “tourist approach” to other cultures: “This approach highlights the five Fs–food, festivals, folklore, fashion, and famous people of a particular culture–rather than exploring the daily interactions of people within that culture. …Often this approach focuses on cultural elements that are exotic, flashy, or quaint. Introducing children to unusual fashion or ‘costumes’ and festivals from a culture reinforces a sense of exoticism or otherness rather than fostering understanding.”
- Authorship: “[S]elect materials that include books written and illustrated by people either from the culture being profiled or with considerable knowledge about and experience related to the culture.”
- Date: “[E]xamine the copyright date of the materials to identify outdated content.”
Donate diverse books. If you find a book you love, get an extra copy and donate it to your local library.
Participate in a virtual book drive. First Book, a program that provides access to books for children in need, has a great selection of multicultural books that you can choose from to donate. (Many books cost only a few dollars each!) Check it out here.
Support your local library. The greatest demand, and the greatest need, for multicultural books is in libraries–but they continually face funding cuts. If you feel so inclined, contact your local representatives to express support for public and school library funding.
From my bookshelf
Here are a handful of books I’ve been reading recently with my toddler. (Kudos to my local children’s librarian for promoting these titles–many of these I picked up right off the display table.)
Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman and Caroline Binch (1991)
One of my favorite books as a kid, one of my favorite books ever, and one of my toddler’s favorite books. Also, a Reading Rainbow selection. You can’t go wrong. The story incorporates elements like prejudice from schoolmates and a grandmother’s nonstandard English both elegantly and naturally. Kids will easily identify with Grace’s love of stories.
Uptown by Bryan Collier (2000)
A young boy, via conversational prose and cool collage-style illustrations, gives you a tour of the geography and heart of his home, Harlem.
Here I Am by Patti Kim and Sonia Sanchez (2014)
In graphic novel style, this picture book tells the story of a young boy arriving in America from Korea. The wordless approach beautifully captures the boy’s emotions and experiences as he faces both difficulty and discovery in his new world.
Juneteenth for Mazie by Floyd Cooper (2015)
The illustrations are ethereal and lovely. A perfect introduction to the celebration of Juneteenth, as a young girl learns about the struggles and triumphs of her ancestors. On June 19, 1865–more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation–soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, announcing the end of the Civil War and the end of slavery in the United States. Learn more about Juneteenth here.
Ron’s Big Mission by Rose Blue, Corinne J. Naden, and Don Tate (2009)
I love picture books that offer mini-biographies of little-known yet fascinating people, and this is one of them. (Here’s another favorite.) A young boy uses peaceful resistance to get a library card–and prompts desegregation of the county library. (I’d love to learn more about the library desegregation process throughout the country, too.) This real-life story is inspiring, and my boy loves to read it over and over.
My Mom Has X-Ray Vision by Angela McAllister and Alex T. Smith (2010)
This is a fun, silly story that just happens to have a black boy and his mom as the main characters, and a diverse cast of supporting characters. What an idea! Anyway, this is totally worth reading for the fact that everyone is pictured in delightfully sixties-British-mod attire.
I received a copy of Juneteenth for Mazie and Here I Am from Capstone Young Readers in exchange for my honest review. I was not compensated for this post and all opinions are my own. Amazon links are affiliate links.
Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2015 Sponsors: Platinum Sponsors: Wisdom Tales Press, Daybreak Press Global Bookshop. Gold Sponsors: Satya House, MulticulturalKids.com, Author Stephen Hodges and the Magic Poof. Silver Sponsors: Junior Library Guild, Capstone Publishing, Lee and Low Books, The Omnibus Publishing. Bronze Sponsors: Double Dutch Dolls, Bliss Group Books, Snuggle with Picture Books Publishing, Rainbow Books, Author Felicia Capers, Chronicle Books Muslim Writers Publishing, East West Discovery Press.