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Diversity in Children’s Books Is Hard to Find—But Important

From the 1940s through today, librarians have lamented the color of kid’s lit. The market might not provide diversity, but you can find it at your local library.

Photo: Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune

My daughter has a curious habit, though I don’t know whether it’s unusual. She frames much of the world in terms of “mama, dada, and baby"—a big rock will be “mama rock” and a little rock “baby rock.” Or it could be a stick, or an illustrated animal, or any set of matched objects. At two years old, she understands the world around her in the structure of a heterosexual nuclear family.

Which makes sense; she spends most of our time around us. My mother-in-law says it’s to our credit as parents, but perhaps it’s not uncommon. Either way, it’s moving. But it’s an intimidating reminder of how far the things she happens to be exposed to can reach in her attempt to understand everything around her.

I was reminded of this when I recently came across an old piece by Noah Berlatsky, “The Answer to Implicit Racism Might Be in Children’s Literature":

If white people are going to stop being racist, they need more than just will—they need a culture that supports anti-racism. Diverse kids’ literature gives children of color a chance to see themselves as heroes, which is vital. But smart, thoughtful books with non-white protagonists can also give white children a chance to see black people and people of color as something other than anxiety-producing others or stereotypes.

“The” answer? No, but an answer. It’s an old idea; one of my favorite unheralded Chicagoans of yore is Charlemae Rollins, a pioneering children’s librarian who pushed within the field for more diverse literature—with considerable success—over 60 years before it became a hashtag.

The progress has been slow. NIU’s Melanie Koss reviewed a sample of 455 children’s books published in 2012, and the results weren’t much more encouraging than what Rollins found when she studied the subject back in 1941:

Her findings, reported in the latest Journal of Children’s Literature, show that the majority of that year’s picture books for children featured white as both the primary culture (45 percent) and the secondary culture (21 percent).

[snip]

Seventy-five percent of human main characters were white; blacks were protagonists in 15 percent of the books while other cultures combined for less than 6 percent of lead characters.

The Cooperative Children’s Book Center does a larger sample every year of children’s and young-adult books, between 2,800 and 3,600. Since 2002, the total number of books about Africans and African-Americans published in a single year hasn’t exceeded 180; for Latinos, 94. They don’t habitually keep track of the prevalence of white characters, but their 2013 sample was about what you would assume from the yearly stats:

The really dismal numbers come with fiction, both middle grade and young adult. Anyone who is up on trends in children’s and young adult book publishing knows that fiction (a/k/a chapter books and novels) make up the bulk of what is currently being published. Our stats so far for 2013 bear this out. We have received 682 works of fiction to date this year, which makes up 45.19% of our total. Just 32 of them are about non-human protagonists (Most of these were animals; I only counted paranormals if there was no interaction with mortals in the story.)  That means 95.3% of all fiction titles are about human beings. Of the 650 books about human beings, 614 feature white characters, and just 36 feature people of color as main characters. That amounts to just 5.27% of the total.

It’s worth keeping this in mind when people resist, say, the casting of a black actor to play a comic book hero. The first fictional characters we’re ever introduced to are mostly white, today as much as 50 years ago. The findings of Koss and the CBCC aren’t much more heartening than Nancy Larrick’s famous 1965 study, in which she found that only 6.7 percent out of 5,206 children’s trade books published over a three-year period had black characters. And only about 40 percent of those books depicted African-Americans, and still fewer contemporary African-Americans: “over the three-year period, only four-fifths of one percent of the children’s trade books of the children’s trade books from the sixty-three publishers tell a story about American Negroes today.” The total: 44, 12 of which were picture books.

Picture books are among the first representations of the broader world that we see. And they are introduced at a critical time. The University of Chicago’s Katherine Kinzler and others before her have identified the preschool years as the time when “race-based social preferences” begin to emerge, becoming explicit around ages four to five, much less so at three years old. At two, my daughter seems to be developing a deeper sense of what’s going on in simple books, like Blueberries for Sal, and emotionally reacting to it (she doesn’t like the pages where Sal is separated from her mother). It comes on very, very quickly.

Why is this the case? Christopher Myers, a Caldecott winner and second-generation children’s book author—the son of the great Walter Dean Myers—did his best to figure it out, though the answer is frustratingly opaque:

“Who would stand in the way of such a thing?” I’ve asked this question of industry folks, of booksellers, of my father, who’s been fighting this battle since before I picked up my first words. The closest I can get to the orchestrator of the plot — my villain with his ferret — is The Market. Which I think is what they all point to because 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, and so the representative from (insert major bookselling company here) has asked that we have only text on the book cover because white kids won’t buy a book with a black kid on the cover — or so The Market says, despite millions of music albums that are sold in just that way.

The market moves slowly, but there’s an intermediary: the public library. It has to work with the books that exist, of course, but they’re oriented to serve their patrons and the broader community. As a result, they drive the market for multicultural books; it’s not surprising that librarians have been on the vanguard of that market, going all the way back to Charlemae Rollins. Their quiet, static shelves belie how librarians shape the great mass of books into meaning. Diverse children’s books may be few and far between, but not there.

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