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