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.