I’m sure you already know there’s a problem with diversity in children’s literature.
Like every parent I know, I want my children to grow into kind adults who can work and play with people who don’t look/sound/act/believe/etc. just like them. Adults who can recognize the humanity of every person they meet. Adults who will never ever abuse or crush another person.
Most of us, I think, believe in the power of stories to help achieve these parenting goals: to light imaginations and empathy afire.
So why did researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison find that only 2.9% of 3200 children’s books published during 2013 were about African Americans? The numbers for Latino, American Indian, and Asian American characters are also depressingly low. When a different team of researchers analyzed over 5000 picture books published during the 20th century, they found that boys, men, and male bears/toys/monsters/etc. show up in book titles almost twice as often as their female counterparts in titles. They’re central characters 1.6 times as often.
Children’s books talk a lot about being ourselves and accepting differences, and that’s awesome. But these numbers send a different message. They tell children that some people’s stories are more interesting than others’. They suggest that some groups of people are more real, more normal, more important–reinforcing crappy messages that are already blaring from other sources (movies, TV shows, advertisements, peers, adults, the works).
What we read, see, and hear affects what we care about and what we imagine is possible.
What can a parent do?
First of all, parents make better decisions when we realize there’s an issue. More specifically?
1. Size up your current collection. If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably already doing this. But it’s important, so I’ll say it anyway. Glance through the books on your children’ shelves (or floor, if your home is ‘organized’ like mine). How many focus on male characters? On female ones? How many tell the stories of people with disabilities, older people, people living in different countries from you, people with family structures different from yours? How many feature main characters who are white, and how many focus on characters who are African, African American, Asian, Asian American, American Indian, Latino/a? Do girls and women behave in strictly stereotypical ways, or does it look like there are lots of different ways to be a girl or a woman? What about boys and men? Are characters with disabilities stuck in passive roles, with able-bodied friends saving the day? Do racial stereotypes show up in your books? The point is not to censor the collection or pick on any individual book. Instead, the idea is to look for patterns and any “missing pieces” you hadn’t noticed before. You can discuss the patterns with your young readers, and you can work to fill in the gaps.
2. Seek out diversity-friendly publishers, booksellers, and librarians. There are excellent children’s books with diverse characters and strong stories out there. Check out A Mighty Girl, the American Library Association’s Amelia Bloomer Project, Lee & Low Books, Star Bright Books, and Tamarind Books. Also try asking a real live librarian–sometimes the best resource of all. (I’ve written about the how-to-find issue with regard to nonsexist children’s books elsewhere, too.)
3. Learn and discover online. Especially during the past several months, children’s librarians and authors have talked a whole lot about diversity in children’s literature.
- The We Need Diverse Books movement took off this April and has resulted in some awesome reading lists and other ideas for parents and teachers. Here’s their website.
- You can also consider donating money to We Need Diverse Books, to help this new organization take concrete steps toward a better children’s/YA lit world.
- Check out Scholastic’s “How To Choose The Best Multicultural Books” and Understanding Prejudice’s “Bibliography of Children’s Books.”
- Fabulous children’s book author Laurel Snyder has compiled lists of great woman-created picture books published in 2013 and 2014. Neat stuff there!
- As an enthusiastic fantasy reader with an enthusiastically fantasy-reading child, I also enjoyed Zetta Elliott’s piece “Kid Lit Equality: Fantasy or Reality?“
4. Raise awareness in small ways. It matters for parents to talk with our children about what we’re reading, hearing, and watching together. Educators also need to hear that parents care about diversity. Why not recommend (or donate, if that’s welcome) a new book for the classroom, ask about themes or groups of people that seem poorly represented on a bookshelf or reading list, and/or thank a teacher or librarian for having such an inclusive collection or display?