Children’s literature publishing is like a winter in the Northeast: blanketed in white.
According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC), only 14% of the children’s books published in 2014 were by or about people of color. Considering that 37% of our population is minorities, that’s a poor reflection, indeed.
Even more troubling, only 43% of the books about people of color (163 books in total) were written by people of the culture they wrote about. That points to a dramatic fact—publishing itself (not just book characters) needs to be more diverse. Despite the best of intentions, misrepresentation and implicit stereotyping can become factors in multicultural literature.
And although this isn’t remotely new or surprising, a dearth of diverse literature for kids is nevertheless part of a dangerous pattern—and it’s up to us to stop this trend.
Why Diverse Books?
We need books that reflect who we are, as communities, neighborhoods, and individuals.
Books become doorways to discovering and affirming one’s identity, to learning how to navigate everyday existence with aplomb and empathy. Teacher Sara Lissa Paulson describes reading El Deafo by Cece Bell to her students—predominantly Latino and African American, and nearly all with deaf parents or relatives—and watching the book “capture [her] students’ hearts.”
Diverse literature teaches children about the reality of the world, of different colors, ages, body types, and abilities. If children don’t have access to literature that supports this, the damage is two-fold: they risk feeling invisible and insignificant to society, and are placed at a disadvantage in developing cross-boundary empathy.
How a Lack of Diverse Children’s Books Leads to Other Social Problems
Such a blinding lack of diversity has been standardized into American media and politics for much too long, and is visible in all pockets of social life.
We become accultured to a lack of diversity in childhood (even with over 1/3 of our population being nonwhite, and about half being women), and that plays out big time in mainstream media: among the top 100 domestic grossing sci-fi and fantasy films, only 8% (just 8 films!) feature a protagonist of color—none of whom are women, by the way—and only 2% star a protagonist with a disability. Not one was LGBTQ.
In the political arena, it’s easy to notice the stark homogeneity, but it hits home to realize that the 2013 Congress was 82% white and 81% male.
And even innovative areas of the workforce also fall headfirst into the diversity gap. Take Silicon Valley for instance, which holds over 200 tech companies, but is overwhelmingly male (82%) and employs only 2% black and 3% Latinx people.
When the statistics are as stark as this, we need to examine all the cultural factors that are contributing—including the diversity of characters that kids are able to model themselves after.
If we want future generations to chip away at the current barriers against acknowledgement, empathy, and opportunity for diverse ethnicities, sexualities, and bodies, we need to make a wide variety of people and images seen and heard in our literature. And we need to get that literature into the hands of children.
Challenging as that may seem, there are a variety of ways to help change the climate of children’s literature. In these 4 ways, we can work to shine a light on all kinds of children, and all kinds of people:
1. Don’t settle!
Finding diverse children’s literature is possible, if you know where to look. And the first place you should look is with your local librarian (whether at a school or public library). Librarians know the task already of seeking out, acquiring, and reading multicultural and diverse books, so chances are they will have excellent suggestions.
If your neighborhood or city has an independent bookstore, it wouldn’t hurt to check them out as well. Often indie bookstores are owned by and employ people with a real passion for widespread pockets of literature. These establishments have motivation to know about a range of books, not just what’s mainstream.
In this way, you not only support your local economy, but you can better teach your kids to search beyond the purely commercial.
2. Familiarize yourself with publishers and resources genuinely devoted to diverse literature.
Lee and Low Books is possibly the largest, most well known, and outspoken publisher of multicultural children’s literature, and they have created a strong following through their empowering and enlightening online presence. Other presses include Cinco Puntos, Annick Press, and a score of others.
Plus, many of the big publishing houses have smaller imprints directed specifically to diverse children’s literature, like HarperCollins’ Amistad. Keeping up with any of these presses’ catalogues, events, and projects will ensure you know what great books are about to come out. In fact, if certain books are particularly valuable to you, you can then let your librarian know, in case it’s possible to acquire the books for schools.
Furthermore, lots of scholars, authors, librarians, and teachers maintain children’s lit blogs for different minorities, and many frequently discuss multicultural issues. (Black, Native American, Disability, Muslim American, and Latinx children’s literature are just a few subjects you might find.) Likewise, these academics and scholars often pull together some of the best lists for readers, or highlight the awards created to bring even more recognition to the best books out there.
3. Follow, contribute to, and/or volunteer for organizations that care about diversity.
The past few years have seen the birth of a myriad of great projects for the cause of diversifying children’s literature, including the We Need Diverse Books movement (WNDB), Diversity in YA, and CBC Diversity, for example. These groups try to build awareness of non-mainstream literature, but also often work to make changes in the systems of publishing itself.
WNDB focuses on publicity and social media campaigns for getting published books more recognition. It has also created a paid publishing internship for people of color and disability. First Book is a non-profit initiative that aims to get relevant, identifiable books into the hands of children in need.
Consider volunteering for or contributing to causes like these, to help ensure their continued commitment to proliferating diverse literature.
4. Support school fundraising, and advocate for increased budgets for libraries.
Too often, when school budgets get slashed, the arts are affected first, and that includes the emphasis on the importance of language arts. Libraries in particular get short-changed most often; without proper funding, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to acquire the kinds of school resources necessary for our increasingly diverse youth.
Despite such cuts, librarians do find ways to make good happen. Many grants and initiatives are in place to help schools, like the one established by author James Patterson. Patterson is teaming up with Scholastic Reading Club to establish a $1.5 million school libraries grant. Where you can, look to build up and support your own school library, and don’t hesitate to ask your local schools how you can help.
As our society’s diverse make-up continues to grow, so should our understanding of each other. What better place to start than from our books?
Alya Hameed recently completed her M.A. from San Diego State University, specializing in Children’s Literature. If she isn’t poring over maps, scavenging for the next epic book series, or getting lost on a hike, you can find her on Twitter (@SimplyAlya) or on her food & literature blog, Coriander Dreams.