Everything But Them: The Problem with Children's Books
Updated: Mar 9, 2022
Did you know that black children are more likely to read a book about a talking vegetable than a character who looked like them? Well, believe it! If you take a close look at the children's section of any mainstream bookstore, you will see beautifully illustrated covers featuring white boys and girls, animals, trucks, and other nonhuman things. Every so often, sprinkled in between these books you will find a cover that features a black child. According to the University of Wisconsin, only 10% of children's books feature black characters. To put that in perspective, that means that if a book store displayed 100 books on a shelf, only 10 of those books would feature a black boy or girl. The numbers get even lower for other marginalized communities. Of that 100 books, only 7 of those books would feature an Asian character, only 5 of the books would feature a Lantinx character, and there would be 1 single book featuring a character of Indigenous descent.
To some, this disparity might seem harmless. Why should racial and ethnic background matter in a children's book? All that really matters is that kids read cute and funny stories that foster good moral character, right? Wrong! Imagery matters! Like all other forms of media, children's books promote images, concepts, and ideas that influence how children see the world. So, when little Johnny reads his 12th book about kids who look like him exploring the galaxy, he can easily imagine his future self being an astronaut who leads a NASA space exploration. However, after reading those same 12 books, little Deshawn might come to the conclusion that only white kids become astronauts. Sadly, these are the types of perceptions about the world that are being promoted by the lack of diversity in children's books.
As a mother and educator, I find this information both depressing and unacceptable. Our children need to see themselves portrayed in books, especially if we want them to become avid readers. It is as if publishers have decided that children's stories are only worth being told through the eyes of a white child, an animal, or some other inanimate object. I call out publishers because research has also shown that the overwhelming majority of children's book authors that are published by mainstream publishers are white. This is not because there aren't black children's book authors in the writing community. The writers are there. The talent is there. The opportunity to be published and promoted by mainstream publishers is not. It wouldn't be far fetched to to assume that that disparity leads to the lack of diversity in children's books.
So, how do we as parents and educators combat this problem? One thing we can do is be deliberate in our selection of books for our classroom and home libraries. Publishers such as Lee and Low Books offer a massive selection of books that feature characters of color. I have also had lots of success purchasing books on amazon that feature black characters. Fill your child's library with as many books as possible that remind your child on a daily basis that she/he is worthy of being acknowledged. Sure, your child will not articulate that idea, but he/she will recognize the similarities shared with the featured characters. This recognition and imagery will promote a positive self image, and it will influence your child's perception of the world. It's all about planting the seeds of success as early as possible, and what better way to do that than with a book!
To help build those libraries, I am launching a book review series in February. I will be reviewing children's books by black authors that feature black characters. Be sure to keep in eye out for that next month!
Until Next Time,