Where Are All The Kids Of Color In Children’s Literature?

March 19, 2014  |  

There has been lots of discussion as of late about the state of diversity in children’s books, and that is a good thing.

Most recently, a New York Times piece from Christopher Myers called “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature” highlighted a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, which reports that out of the 3,200 children’s books published last year, just 93 books were written about black people and characters.

The study also says that only 67 children’s titles were actually written by African Americans. The numbers are also dismal for other minority groups, including Native Americans, who only had 34 books written about them (18 actually published by Native Americans themselves); Asians, who only had 69 titles written on them, and Latinos, who despite being one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in America, had only 57 children’s books with Latino leads.

It should be noted that the 3,200 books in the study do not represent all children’s books that might have been published last year (don’t forget about the children’s book your cousin’s uncle has been hustling on street corners and at family barbecues). The study authors say that the book totals represent what comes into the library (schools and public) annually. However, the lack of titles on black and brown kids alone speaks volumes to the emphasis – or lack thereof  – some of the major publishing houses might be putting on diversity. After all, this society is growing increasingly browner (if you want to split hairs, tan), so why are these stories still being told mostly through the perspective of blonde-haired and blue-eyed children?

Or as Myers notes in his piece:

The mission statements of major publishers are littered with intentions, with their commitments to diversity, to imagination, to multiculturalism, ostensibly to create opportunities for children to learn about and understand their importance in their respective worlds. During my years of making children’s books, I’ve heard editors and publishers bemoan the dismal statistics, and promote this or that program that demonstrates their company’s “commitment to diversity.” With so much reassurance, it is hard to point fingers, but there are numbers and truths that stand in stark contrast to the reassurances. The business of children’s literature enjoys ever more success, sparking multiple movie franchises and crossover readership, even as representations of young people of color are harder and harder to find.”

It is a point not lost on me. I have long noticed the lack of color in children’s books. As a young reader, my favorites like Beverly Cleary’s Ramona the Pest and Judy Blume’s Superfudge were noticeably absent of people who looked like me. It didn’t make the stories less enjoyable, but often I knew I was viewing a reality foreign to my own. Sometimes, and in certain contexts, those differences would spark envy.

African American children’s book author Walter Dean Myers echoed similar sentiments in a followup New York Times essay called “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” In it, he talks about the impact that not seeing black faces in children’s literature had on him as a young man. Furthermore, he explains how it would be years later, as a young adult, where he would finally get his first taste of young black life in literature through reading James Baldwin’s short story, Sonny’s Blues. Myers writes of the experience and how the book not only humanized “people who were like me,” but also gave him” permission that I didn’t know I needed, the permission to write about my own landscape, my own map.” More specifically:

TODAY I am a writer, but I also see myself as something of a landscape artist. I paint pictures of scenes for inner-city youth that are familiar, and I people the scenes with brothers and aunts and friends they all have met. Thousands of young people have come to me saying that they love my books for some reason or the other, but I strongly suspect that what they have found in my pages is the same thing I found in “Sonny’s Blues.” They have been struck by the recognition of themselves in the story, a validation of their existence as human beings, an acknowledgment of their value by someone who understands who they are. It is the shock of recognition at its highest level.”

However, the exclusion of stories centered around children of color is only half of the discussion. Equally as important to the question of if we are in the story is how exactly we, including any ethnic aesthetic, are being portrayed? In this essay from January on the website Africa in Words, entitled, “Images of Africa in Children’s Books,” Arani Guerra speaks about inauthentic cultural representations in children’s literature, particularly around stories centered in Africa. As per the course, many of these stories take place in fictitious places – and if they are real places, involve animals and other cultural cues, which are not indigenous to that particular place.

In particular, she praises two stories, Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae and Anna Hibiscus’ Song, authored by Atinuke and Lauren Tobia, and says:

Is this option for the generalising of ‘Africa’ an intent to make the narrative more accessible for children? Maybe children know about Africa (that place full of jungles and elephants, and giraffes tangled in the trees and vines…), but not about Luvironza river. Or is this a market move? Does a book settled in ‘Africa’ sell better than one in Nigeria or Burundi? In any case, I think children (and parents) would be happy reading about a giraffe dancing the boogie woogie in a Kenyan national park, while Anna Hibiscus searched for her song in her Nigerian home. A story unfolded on the shore of the Luvironza river can be as entertaining as any other. And all of these stories would be teaching their little readers something different about each of these places.”

No wonder folks still believe that Africa is a country.

I am curious to know if you folks, particularly parents, have noticed the diversity gap in children’s literature, and more specifically, what are you doing to address it? Or are you concerned about it at all?

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