Kay: Diversifying Children’s Literature

A footbridge carries the bridleway between Whinlatter and Thornthwaite across Comb Gill (Cumbria, UK).  © Copyright Graham Robson and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/)

A footbridge carries the bridleway between Whinlatter and Thornthwaite across Comb Gill (Cumbria, UK).
© Copyright Graham Robson and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/)

We’ve all seen recent news events demonstrating that there’s a great racial divide in America. Most Americans support values of equality and racial fairness—but from policing to publishing, a clear pattern of discrimination against African-Americans still exists. As writers of fiction, how can we help to bridge this divide?

Let’s look at children’s literature. It’s not diverse. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center of the University of Wisconsin-Madison began tracking children’s book data in 1985. In 2013, a total of 5,000 children’s books were published, of which the Center surveyed 3,200 of them. Of these, only 68 were written by African-Americans, and only 93 had black protagonists. That’s the lowest number recorded since 1994. Also lacking: books by or about Native Americans, Asian-Americans, or Latinos.

The reasons for this are many. Historically, children’s books featuring diverse characters don’t sell well, although there are exceptions, such as Octavia Spencer’s middle-grade mystery, Randi Rhodes, Ninja Detective: The Case of the Time-Capsule Bandit. Award-winning Mexican-American writer Gary Soto ended his 20-year career as a writer of children’s books because of low sales.

Why would these books not sell? Possibly families of color have less discretionary income, and it might not go to children’s books. Book buyers also play a role. Librarians or classroom teachers might think that if they have a Gary Soto book on the shelf, they don’t need another. And rounding out a vicious budgetary curve, libraries and classrooms have been facing tough budget cuts for a decade or more. As much as these buyers might want to acquire books featuring diversity, they might not have the funds to do so.

Publishing companies play a role, too. Diverse hiring practices would help reflect a contemporary audience. But diverse hires aren’t enough. Finding authors of color is difficult. Scholastic executive editor Andrea Davis Pinkney is African-American and has worked in the field for nearly 30 years. She says, “It takes significant effort to find authors [of any race] who can tell great stories that will stand the test of time.” Then there’s the challenge of finding books that children across all ethnicities want to read. What the world needs is an African-American Harry Potter, only different, but still fun and exciting.

And while we’re talking about publishers, they need to push harder on the books that feature characters of color they already have. These books need to be promoted—perhaps with new strategies—and categorized correctly so they’re easy to find and not lumped into a general “multicultural” section.

A recent report (“Addressing Implicit Bias, Racial Anxiety, and Stereotype Threat in Education and Health Care”  by the Perception Institute doesn’t discuss children’s literature directly, but it points out that more frequent—and more positive—interracial interactions are important for reducing racial anxiety. For example, researchers had success with counter-stereotyping—such as showing the film The Joy Luck Club, which reduced implicit bias toward Asian-Americans.

By 2019, children of color will outnumber white children in the United States. Some authors have started a campaign for books that reflect this shifting demographic. Among these writers are best-selling children’s book author Walter Dean Myers and novelist Jennifer Weiner, who asks readers on Twitter to join her in promoting nonwhite characters with the hashtag #colormyshelf.

Diverse kids’ literature gives children of color a chance to see themselves as heroes, which is vital. But books with nonwhite protagonists can also give white children a chance to see people of color as something other than anxiety-producing stereotypes.

It’s a small step, but we have to start somewhere. It’s way past time.



14 thoughts on “Kay: Diversifying Children’s Literature

  1. Here’s a tiny step, but one of my favorite children’s books is “A Snowy Day” with a black protagonist by Jack Ezra Keats. Keats was the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants, according to Wikipedia, but his story is lovely, and the rhythms are so fun. My kids loved this book when they were little.

    I wonder what we can do as writers? I think it helps to widen our circle of acquaintances, and not include “black” characters or “Asian” characters, but instead, see if we can’t imagine our characters as characters who happen to be black or Asian or Hispanic or Native American (or women, or LGBT). Skin or other DNA-designated attributes shouldn’t define a character — it should inform the character.

    I’m Czecho-German-Swedish, and even though I live in Japan, it doesn’t cross my mind to make characters Asian. I do have some Asian-descent characters in my second NaNo. I think part of the problem is that I don’t visualize my characters well enough. I see their souls, but I’m really fuzzy about their outsides — to the extent that I can’t always tell you if someone is blonde or black-haired. I don’t see their skins.

    I will say, though, that I thought the movie Rising Sun was better than Crichton’s book. By making one protagonist black, it really deepened the conflicts and racial aspects. (Don’t go out and get the book or the movie — I wouldn’t recommend either unless you are really into racial portrayals. But suffice it to say, the book seemed to be about white guys against Japanese businessmen. The movie was a triangle about a (?) black guy vs. his white partner, vs. this Japanese business conglomerate. Women don’t play memorable roles . . . except maybe as dead bodies.) I’d forgotten it was Sean Connery, though. Wesley Snipes is the protag, IIRC.

    • I think extending one’s experiences in every way possible helps to inform our writing—in the writing of characters of color and everything else. In the meantime, though, I don’t think we have to shy away from writing these characters. We write male characters all the time and we have to imagine that, so I don’t think we should necessarily shy away from writing, say, an African-American neuroscientist, just because we don’t know any African-American neuroscientists. I’ve been thinking about this in a way like color-blind casting in films: if I have, say, a truck driver, how would he be different if he were African-American, or Chinese-American, or a woman? It could open up a whole new set of plot points.

  2. One of the best, most provocative, and most emotionally discomforting literature classes I had in college was African-American Lit. Our instructor introduced me to Ernest Gaines (who’s book “A Lesson Before Dying” is still one of my all-time favorites), Richard Wright, W.E.B. duBois, Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, and several others. I actually got to hear Ernest Gaines lecture (amazing man).

    Part of what we need to do as writer is include people of all races in OUR books. Harder for a historical, without pigeonholing blacks as slaves or servants, but it can certainly be done.

    • You’re right. We do have to include people of all races in our own books. Did you see the film “Belle”? It was the story of a young, wealthy black woman who grew up in a wealthy white household and the limitations she and her white cousin faced (around 1780). It’s one example of how even historicals can include people of color in major ways.

        • Ah, shoot! I didn’t remember that post, Jilly. Thanks for drawing our attention to it. I think you really nailed it—I did a little research on the Belle story, too, before I mentioned it. The writers/producers did seem to take some license with the story, especially the idea that Belle had anything to do with the Zong massacre case—and the fact that Lord Mansfield decided that case on anything but the most narrow grounds. Still—since so little is known about her, I’m fine with imagining how things might have been.

    • The Beverly Jenkins story we read, Indigo, was an excellent example of a novel with diverse characters, strong African American protagonists, and evil white antagonists, but she was constrained by time because of placing it in a free state in Civil War era America. I agree, Justine, we can do our part to add to the catalog of diverse characters.

      • I was thinking of Beverly Jenkins not long ago. I read a recent interview she’d done, I think in conjunction with a new release. She mentioned, in fact, that she’d never sold all that well, and she wondered if it was because she wrote mostly about African-Americans. But you’re right, Michille—that book was a very interesting look at the constraints placed even on free blacks during that period.

  3. Not a children’s book, but I love the protagonist of Rivers of London/Midnight Riot, Peter Grant, who’s a dark-skinned Londoner of African descent. He’s a great character and his African heritage comes in surprisingly handy at some very opportune moments. He has some uncomfortably funny and very true-feeling insights into being a black policeman. To me, living in Peter Grant’s part of London, the character rings true – and his writer is Ben Aaronovitch, who is white, presumably Jewish or of Jewish descent, and rather older than his character.

    I have a young black guy in my book. He’s an important part of Ian’s extended family, he’s smart, fun and gorgeous and I like him a lot. I have further adventures in store for him 😉

    • I just ordered the first Peter Grant novel–it looks like there’s at least five of them so far, and I’ve been shopping on Amazon for myself for Christmas. Thanks for the tip!

  4. I’ve read a lot of adult books with interesting people of color as characters and as protagonists . . . but it seems that the best (for me) are written by people who are the majority — for example, Girls of Riyadh was a very good read (but is that a color thing, or is that a religious thing, or is it simply a cultural thing? I’m not sure. I’d say it was all three if one is keeping track). In the same area, Persopolis was a great graphic novel by a Persian woman who grew up in the majority, but lived (and still lives, I think) as a minority.

    One huge exception is Amy Tan, who grew up as a minority, and I love her books.

    Part of this is an exposure problem, of course, The people I know are reading mostly white authors with a few Asians of various degrees thrown in. My Amazon recs are also in that same universe.

    I do need to work harder to diversify my reading and my writing.

  5. Pingback: Elizabeth: Beyond Traditional Romance Novels | Eight Ladies Writing

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