Where are the People of Color in Children’s Books?

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African American author Walter Dean Myers wrote an opinion piece in the NY Times a few weeks ago that I’ve been ruminating on. If you have a chance, I recommend taking a look (as well as at the accompanying piece by his son, who is also a noted children’s author, Chris Myers). The former was entitled “Where are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” and he points out that out of 3200 children’s books published in 2013, only 93 were about Black people. I’m sure that even that number doesn’t explain everything– I wonder how many of those 93 were actually written by people of color, or how many weren’t about slavery or the civil rights movement or being a victim. Not that any of those topics are bad, of course, but they are too often the only titles easily accessible, as if the Black experience can be summed up in those three groupings. Myers touches upon that beautifully when he says “I didn’t want to become the “black” representative, or some shining example of diversity. What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me.”

I felt the same way growing up as one of few Koreans in my elementary school. Literally every book I read as a child that featured a Korean character (and honestly, I could probably count the number of titles on one hand) were about the Korean war, which really had nothing to do with me as a child growing up in the 80s and 90s, or about eating bibimbap, which you know, was tasty, but … really?! I was a voracious reader and read hundreds of books as a kid– but not a single one told a story of a girl like me, who was both Korean AND American and valued for more than being a representative of a generalized Asia.

Myers asks a really important question in his piece when he writes, “Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?” Certainly the message to me was that my experience, my life, was strange and alien and something to be embarrassed about. For others it might be that you don’t “count” as an American, or that you are actually invisible and don’t matter. That’s not an exaggeration. There is such a pressing need in our society today to have more books that represent the multifaceted experience of all children. Now, Chris Myers addresses this when he speaks of the great villain in this field: “the MARKET.” Myers writes that, “The Market,’ I am told, just doesn’t demand this kind of book, doesn’t want book covers to look this or that way.” He’s right on the money there. I used to work in book publishing, and that was a common refrain. It’s a complex thing because this thing, The Market, is wrong that there isn’t demand for these kinds of books. Countless kids cry foul. But then again, The Market, is not completely off the mark. Would a Black Harry Potter have been as successful, or what about a Muslim Fancy Nancy? It’s doubtful, but that’s not because there isn’t demand for those stories. It’s because there are deep, complex issues involved in publishing and literacy– who buys books, and who can afford them? Who tells bedtime stories, and how does culture, education, immigration, and gender play into book sales? I can keep going but I’m sure you see the point.

What does that mean then, for the field of children’s literature and the desire for more books featuring diverse stories and characters? Chris Myers writes that he will do his part in writing these stories and that “the rest of the work lies in the imagination of every else along the way, the publishers, librarians, teachers, parents, and all of us, to put [those] books in [a reader’s] hands.” So I suppose that now, we can hope for more writers to rise up to tell their stories, and that the rest of us, in whatever role we are in, can and will work at putting those books in the hands of those children who desperately need them. Hopefully then, with time, The Market will start to change and the demands for more books with people of color will escalate until they can’t be ignored any longer.

Here are a handful of my favorite books that are both written by and are about people of color, that can be placed into the hands of book-hungry children right away! I’d love to hear your recommendations too, so please feel free to leave them in the comments.

Some YA…

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

A Step from Heaven by An Na

American-Born Chinese by Gene Yang

The Planet of Junior Brown by Virginia Hamilton

 

Some Picture Books…

Wings by Christopher Myers

Shin-Chi’s Canoe by Nicola Campbell

Corduroy by Don Freeman

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats

A Chair for Always by Vera Williams

Goin’ Someplace Special by Patricia McKissack

Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki

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Comments
6 Responses to “Where are the People of Color in Children’s Books?”
  1. PaperbackDiva says:

    Reblogged this on Worlds of Fantasy and commented:
    This applies to fantasy and scifi as well.

  2. Grey says:

    I thought the economics of it was interesting. I think if market forces change and there’s greater demand for those books, they will be made. I guess the problem for finding, say, books on Korean children is that there is less demand for them. But for some groups, that argument doesn’t really hold. Probably it also reflects that most of the authors are white and so write about what they know.

  3. Richard says:

    The Market is everything. If the majority of readers is white America, then publishers will see profitability only in books that appeal to white America. It’s hard to fault them, given how difficult the industry is to begin with. It takes tremendous courage to risk the costs of printing a book that might not sell, no matter how good we believe that book is. That is especially true when it comes to children’s books, where parents are more likely to select for books with characters that they want their children identifying with. This usually means characters with a racial and cultural background that reflects their own.

    On the other hand, I think there’s a great deal of hope for diversity in the future, not just children’s books in particular, but publishing in general. Esoteric genres that might have been buried before might see daylight because of the transition toward e-books. Sure, they might still be expensive to purchase, but they’re not expensive to publish compared to the ink, paper, and distribution of yesteryear. I believe Amazon Kindle has a self-publishing type of service that has allowed people who might have otherwise been shown the door at publishers to finally get their work out there. And as we know with the internet, all we need is for one person out there to read it. If they like it, others will know about it. That’s the nature of going viral. And that gives everybody a fighting chance.

    • Ahhh, I have to point out that the issue is that the majority of readers in our country are likely NOT white America! For a couple of years now, minority births now surpass white births and minority populations are growing at an incredible rate. The diversity of books however? Not so much. I would agree that the majority of book buyers come from white America, but again, that’s for many complex reasons. That’s why I do agree in part that it’s hard to fault the publishers but then again… I have no problem faulting them because they are the ones with the power to change the status quo. And it’s not just about the sheer number of books being published. It’s about the content as well (and the marketing!). There is a deep institutionalized racism at work, and that’s simultaneously nobody’s and everybody’s fault.

      I also like your point about e-books and web reading. Already, the internet has changed the face of publishing and literature by providing a forum for anybody and everybody to write and read what they like, so perhaps it’s now an issue of school catching up to technology?

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