Where’s the Diversity in Children’s Books?

Integration may be the law of the land, but most of the books children see are all white.

— Nancy Larrick, “The All-White World of Children’s Books,” The Saturday Review, September 1965

Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?

— Walter Dean Myers, “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?,” The New York Times, March 2014

Some shocking facts: of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, only 93 were about black people, 34 about Native Americans, 69 about Asians and 57 about Latinos (people from South America)

— Emily Drabble, “Why are we holding a diversity in children’s book week,” Web. The Guardian, October 2014

Nearly fifty years later, the issue of diversity in children’s book is still pressing. The only positive development in this period is the expansion of diversity into inclusion of racial, ethnic, cultural, gender and (lower) social class representation. This post focuses primarily on inclusion of other races and ethnicities because their omission is most palpable.

Life shows that the demographics of the US has changed and is still changing. About 40 percent of public school students nationwide are black and Latino, yet, the disparity of their representation in children’s books is egregious. CCBC, The Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA, says, “..the total number of books about people of color—regardless of quality, regardless of accuracy or authenticity—was less than eight percent of the total number of titles we received.”

For the past twenty eight years, CCBC has been documenting the number of children’s books they receive annually by and about people of color. In 2012, CCBC received approximately 3,600 books in 2012. Of those,
• 119 books had significant African or African American content
• 68 books were by Black authors and/or illustrators
• 22 books had American Indian themes, topics, or characters
• 6 books were by American Indian authors and/or illustrators
• 76 books had significant Asian/Pacific or Asian/Pacific American content
• 83 books were by authors and/or illustrators of Asian/Pacific heritage
• 54 books had significant Latino content
• 59 books were by Latino authors and/or illustrators

Lee & Low Books, an independent children’s book publisher focusing on diversity provides the next image which shows the tremendous diversity gap in children’s books.

  • Childrens Books Infographic

    Image from Lee & Low Books

These numbers are shocking. It is frustrating that little progress has been made while the world is continuing changing. There are several reasons to vote for diversity in children’s books. The world is a diverse place, yet, this diverse world isn’t depicted in the world of children’s books. Through books we educate and form children, and, if children only get to see a selected part of the world, we set them up to view and experience life through a partial lens in which white kids and their lives are being perceived as normal, the default state, and everything else is deviant, not normal. . Rudine Sims Bishop, professor emerita of The Ohio State University, frames the problem with the metaphor of “mirror” and “window” books. She says, “All children need both. Too often children of color and the poor have window books into a mostly white and middle- and-upper-class world.” Children are highly formed by what they see, read, hear and experience in their formative years. It’s important that they value the world as it is, which is a highly diverse place, and learn to appreciate the differences and learn to see the sameness in people. If we don’t teach children that, they will see the world from a place of me is normal, and otherness is not normal.
Also, by excluding people, whether it is because of their race, gender, social class, religion, ethnicity, disability, we dehumanize them and rob them of their existence. The far-reaching effects of dehumanizing people shows off in daily life. When Dean Meyers did research on his book ‘Monster’, he talked a white lawyer who defended poor clients who said that getting witnesses for the defendants was not as difficult as it sometimes appeared on television. “The trouble,” he said, “is to humanize my clients in the eyes of a jury. To make them think of this defendant as a human beings and not just one of ‘them.’

Books transmit values about people, about society and about life. If we exclude people, we transmit the message they are not worthy and not part of this society, which has harms the self-esteem of those unrepresented. Another negative effect of under representation is that it feeds daily racism. Unconsciously, people rely on what they see and read, and take that for reality. When I was a student twenty years ago, my colleague students harassed me with racial questions over and over again. They couldn’t believe that an Indian woman was intelligent and studied. I didn’t fit their limited preconceived notions about other people and obviously they hadn’t read about or experienced people like me before. If non-white people and their lives don’t exist in books, people can’t take notice of them. A diverse range of people need to be depicted in children’s books but inclusion alone is not enough. The way people are depicted is also important. In books, black people are often misrepresented and victimized as if their entire life is surrounded by struggle and overcoming racism. People live full lives and want to be presented fully.

Studies show the value of reading to the child’s development, especially in their formative years. The article in Huffingpost, Why More Diversity in Children’s Literature Is Absolutely Necessary, describes the value of reading to children, “These shared positive interactions help foster a secure attachment relationship between parents and children, and research shows the importance of these high quality parent-child relationships to both the developing brain and later academic and social outcomes.” If the disparity gap and badly representation discourages non-white parents to read to their children, we rob their children of shared positive connections.

Already in the late 70s and the early 80s, researchers found that good readers make connections to themselves and their community. The disparity gap causes children of other races and ethnicities who can’t mirror themselves in books to read less, consequently, causing them to make less connections.

It is clear that the lack diversity in children’s books impacts negatively the lives of underrepresented children. Society doesn’t need more research to proof why. More attention needs to be focused on the solution side. The question rises what can be done to improve the situation.
Ellen Oh, YA author and former entertainment lawyer, wasn’t going to wait any longer. She launched a campaign #WeNeedDiverseBooks to push the discussion forward. Luckily, many people showed they cared, too, however, not enough to change the publishing industry.  In the sixties, publishers were said to cater to the need of the white audience. Nowadays, publisher still fear that they won’t make money with diverse books. They have been proven wrong with ‘Monster’ by Dean Myers and other books. Unfortunately, they are reluctant and probably catering the majority of readers that don’t want equal representation yet. There is a play of economic powers that keeps the misbalance alive. The shift will probably take place next generation when nearly half of the US population will be non-white and their economic forces can’t be ignored.

There are things that can be done right now to press the matter ahead. Writers and authors need to do some self-reflection. Many of the current writers don’t include non-white characters in their story let alone have them as main character. When I took part in a children’s writing course, the teacher asked the members what stopped them from writing about non-white characters and why they didn’t have any non-white characters as the protagonist of the story. Someone said bluntly that they didn’t know such persons, others claimed they didn’t feel compelled to it and others said they didn’t know how to write those characters, being white, they felt more comfortable to write about white characters. The latter corresponds with what an attendee of a writer’s conference, a middle aged white woman, declared. According to her, writers write what they know about and since most writers are white, they write about their own life and what they encounter. Seemingly, their personal world isn’t much diverse. In daily life, I socialize with non-whites as well as whites which enables me to write about a diverse cast. If writers really want to, they can, after proper research, write about people and cultures outside their personal circle. Willingness is the key.

While the children’s literature branch is a tough nut to crack, a slight progress on inclusion is being made in comics and on certain TV channels. Issa Rae started writing and producing her own web series ‘The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl’ when she didn’t see young people like her in regular media in characters and stories she grew up with. With her successful web series she created her own niche. I believe this effect may, as long as economic powers don’t shift, carry over to publishing and people will eventually grab onto self-publishing diverse books, probably in co-operation with editors, illustrators and other writers. In publishing children’s books, the most expensive costs are illustrations. If people can find a good solution for that, it is bound that self-publishing will take off fast. The teacher of my writing course encouraged writers to start drawing their own illustrations. Hopefully, children’s literature doesn’t have to wait another five decades before change will occur. After all, an inclusive world is a much better place to live in, for everyone.

 

References

Frank Bass. White Share of U.S. “Population Drops to Historic Low”.  Bloomberg. 2013. Web. 31 October 2014

Emily Drabble, “Why are we holding a diversity in children’s book week,” Web. The Guardian, October 2014

K.T. Horning. “I see white people”. CCBlogC. 2013. Web. 31 October, 2014

Kathleen T. Horning, Merri V. Lindgren, and Megan Schliesman.  “A Few Observations on Publishing in 2012. CCBC.  2013. Web. 31 October 31, 2014

Nancy Larrick, “The  All-White World of Children’s Books,”  The Saturday Review, September 1965

Lee & Low Books. 2014. Web. 31 October, 2014

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