Children Need Diversity in Their Books. And We Can Help Make That Happen.

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.

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?

we took a vacation, and it was good

I didn’t take the time to draft and schedule this week’s post, for the very pleasant and snazzy reason that Eric and I were both busy not doing any sort of work at all. (Except unpacking and organizing in the basement, and carrying on with laundry and all that, which while admittedly “work” is also quite pleasant to do in a more relaxed and efficient way than usual.) I wrote maybe fifteen hundred words of novel draft in eensy pieces of time, just because I wanted to be in that world during those little lulls, but otherwise I was pretty much away from my laptop and tablet.

Assorted highlights:

  • We prepared and ate good food.
  • We found our winter gear under duress, as we had the season’s first snow and then a cold snap with highs in the teens and low twenties! (I know I saw that box somewhere … I found one of Noah’s mittens, do you know where the other might be …)
  • We enjoyed watching Noah and Simon gleefully shovel snow with our brand new shovels. Simon repeatedly informed me that Eric (at the hardware store) had asked if Simon wanted a little shovel, but that he hadn’t so he got a big one.
  • We especially enjoyed feeling smug about how right we were to seek out a house with a small non-corner lot. This place involves maybe a third of the snow removal of the house where we last rented. It’s a huge difference.
  • I wondered at how deeply relaxed I felt somewhere around day 3. Then I realized that Eric and I haven’t had a week when neither of us went to work–and haven’t had even a shorter period without entertaining guests, except for scattered three-day weekends–since he started this job a year and a half ago. It makes sense that it felt like a relief! Also, we should definitely not go that long again.
  • You know how I can’t get adjunct work? Eric was somewhat randomly offered an online course in his field, through a local college. So he’ll be working his full-time job plus a part-time job during the spring semester. Yay. No, I mean really we need the money (I was supposed to be making it, and then some!), and it’s kind of neat for him to get to use his PhD in a more direct way. But we’re going to be stretched a little thin during that period.
  • We live in such a cool place. We went to various museum/zoo/conservatory-type places this week, and it was just delightful. Plus Simon’s finally getting to an age when he can remember not to grab things or climb into exhibits, and instead understands a lot more about what he’s seeing and hearing.
  • A butterfly landed on my nose! It felt weird! And another one landed on my eyelid! Also weird, as you might imagine.

I’ve been reading Home Is Where the School Is, an interview-based scholarly study of homeschooling mothers’ experiences and emotional lives, and it’s super interesting. I’ll review it here eventually.

book review: Night Sweats: An Unexpected Pregnancy

A single 35-year-old librarian with strong nurturing tendencies toward cats–but with no intention of becoming a parent, ever–discovers that her IUD has failed. She’s pregnant.

As the back blurb on Laura Crossett’s memoir Night Sweats points out, only about half of US pregnancies are planned pregnancies. And yet “we rarely hear the stories of women who did not seek to become pregnant.” The story Crossett shares in her book is the story of an unintended and very very surprising pregnancy. It’s the story of deciding whether or not to have a child, a nuanced and straightforward take on an experience that seems so political and so taboo in our society but that’s really incredibly personal and common. And it’s the story of a pregnancy, with all the idiosyncratic physical and emotional stuff that always entails.

The structure of Night Sweats suits it well: it’s based on posts to a private blog and maintains that mini-essays-breeding-with-journal-entries style. There’s a lovely immediacy. These entries are then organized according to the Episcopal church calendar, tying in effectively with the story’s ongoing engagement with biblical imagery and other churchy things. (It’s not annoying, by the way. Not churchy as in preachy.) It’s a very slight volume–just 93 pages long–and usually I hate for things to be short, but somehow it works here.

The writing is beautiful. Extremely apt descriptions are peppered throughout.

Actually, this book is now one of my favorite pregnancy/parenting memoirs. I don’t even know how I came across it (oddly, I spent a year hanging out in one of Crossett’s favorite online spaces and remember her a bit from there, but it was pre-pregnancy and therefore pre-book). But I’m glad I did: it just really captures some of the texture, messiness, ugliness, beauty, and–for word people and idea people like me–thinkiness of the pregnancy experience. My pregnancies were both very much planned, and yet this story resonates with me far more than most pregnancy accounts do.

And behold, here is my obligatory mention of the fact that, though many readers expect self-published books to be poorly edited, this book is both self-published and well-edited: nicely designed, too!

Self-published books can be hard to get one’s hands on, though. Because my public library system is made of awesome, I have access to Night Sweats through interlibrary loan. You can also, apparently, buy the paperback version through Lulu for ten bucks or get it various other ways (listed at the end of this Our Bodies, Our Blog post).

book review: The Radical Housewife: Redefining Family Values for the 21st Century

In her new memoir The Radical Housewife, at-home parent and former Minnesota NOW president Shannon Drury writes about lots of my favorite things: parenting, feminism, reproductive rights, angst over identity and wage work, and the fine city of Minneapolis, where we both live and write. The book tells personal stories about postpartum depression (and just … depression), local politics, generational clashes within feminist activism, friendships, and the beginnings of a writing career, a wide range of threads that are woven together nicely but not annoyingly tidily.

Drury and I have a lot in common. An awful lot. We’re both white mothers of two, writers, virtual non-wage-earners, married to full-time wage-earning feminist husbands. We both attended hoity-toity small liberal arts colleges in small midwestern towns. My house is under four miles from the neighborhood sites she mentions, for heaven’s sake.

This all makes it interesting to me that the experiences and feelings Drury describes are, in many cases, so different from my own. This is often the fun of memoir, right?, to enter into someone else‘s world and worldview.

Perhaps the most visible difference between Drury’s convictions and my own is her stance on elementary education. Always willing to put too fine a point on something, Drury writes forthrightly that “liberals who opt out of public schools are big fat hypocrites.” I don’t identify as a liberal, conveniently, but I am most certainly a public-school-valuing progressive, and I am undeniably allowing at least one of my children to opt out of that system. The book only specifically mentions homeschooling once, when the author suppresses a sarcastic urge to recommend it to a vocally anti-LGBTQ and anti-Welcoming-Schools religious mother. You can’t be a left-leaning homeschooler without getting the message that public schools are an absolute requirement for moral rectitude, and you’d have to live under a rock not to know that the stereotypical homeschooler is a child-sheltering fundamentalist bigot, so none of this is news to me. But obviously Drury’s and my parenting experiences and politics have led us to different understandings–and practices!–in this and many other cases.

Another, subtler, set of differences revolve around socio-economic class and attitudes toward wage work. Drury went to Carleton; I went to Kenyon. Drury is an at-home parent with a wage-earning professional-class spouse; me too! But Drury grew up working class, and I grew up considerably wealthier than I am now. Drury had crap jobs that she really didn’t want to continue doing–children or no children–whereas I had the unhatched egg of a career that was really important to me, wanted to work for money, and couldn’t get a job because of bad degree timing and an economic disaster. So, it was thought-provoking for me (as an accidental and rather unwilling stay-at-home parent) to hear more about this different approach, and to see the many points at which our emotional and identity-oriented struggles overlap despite these differences.

The Radical Housewife is a quick read, both because its style is accessible and because it’s not particularly lengthy. It draws on and maintains the shape of the blog posts (at her site The Radical Housewife) and columns (at The Minnesota Women’s Press) Drury has long written. So, it’s quite nice for those of us whose reading happens in stolen moments–while a toddler nurses or children play nearby, or during those short minutes before totally crashing at night.

[The publisher sent me a free copy of this book for review purposes. Just, like, so ya know, and all that.]

what I’m interested in right now

Some things that currently fascinate me and grab at my attention, in no particular order:

  • How novelists work and think, how writers write, how imagination and intellect function within the limitations and mess of real life. Where do novels come from, Mommy?
  • How to take care of a house and yard. Okay, this does not fascinate me. But I genuinely wish I knew more about it! And it’s something we’re gradually figuring out (and outfitting ourselves for: you need a lot of stuff for this business, it turns out).
  • The breastfeeding parents who feel judged and unwelcome in public, and the formula-feeding parents who feel judged and unwelcome in like the universe, and the bizarre reality that this is so often framed/experienced/lived as Breastfeeders vs. Bottle-feeders when really this is a jumble of Mothers Can’t Do Shit Right No Matter What, misogyny, the continuing power of separate spheres ideology (women/family/home/private are and should be utterly different & separate from men/industry/work/public), terrible public & workplace policies, and crappy science reporting. I’ve cared about the lack of support and good information around infant feeding for a long time, but in recent years the strange staging of (and silences in/around) the conversation have really struck me.
  • Victorian fairy painting and illustration, and fairy lore/culture more generally.
  • Learning, watching learning happen, discovering how Noah learns, trying to make learning happen for myself in various ways (especially trying to be patient but active as I try to acquire some French, and drafting my first novel).
  • Plants, insects, birds, and other creatures of Minnesota. I’m learning the names and rhythms of our adopted home along with Noah, and it’s just great.
  • Everything about Simon. The way he phrases and pronounces things. His laugh. His belly. All the details.
  • Coffee. Drinking the hell out of that shit. It fascinates me. Mmm.
  • What would it be like to sleep and have free time? I hear that will happen to me at some point in the future, and used to happen to me in the past. MIND BLOWN.

recent-ish reads: short reviews of books for young people

Quick reviews of two middle-grade novels and a short story collection, originally posted at Goodreads.

Fortunately, The Milk, Neil Gaiman

     Silly. Fun. Professor Steg is pretty great.

The Pinhoe Egg, Diana Wynne Jones

My favorite of the Chrestomanci books, which is saying something! (Now that I’ve read them all, I’d like to go back to most of them a second time.) The Pinhoe Egg sticks together well and features a compelling girl main character alongside the magically-talented boy lead so common in Jones’s novels. The mundane, domestic interactions and the magical world furl together beautifully here. A real pleasure.

Mixed Magics: Four Tales of Chrestomanci, Diana Wynne Jones

These–especially the first three stories–are made of everything that’s good about the Chrestomanci novels. Lots of fun to visit with the characters again (and I’m generally a longform rather than short story person, so I was a little surprised to find them so thoroughly enjoyable).

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