Consciousness-Raising by the Numbers in Diverse Children’s Books

A week ago, the Cooperative Center for Children’s Books at the University of Wisconsin-Madison published its annual review of the diverse books published in the United States in the previous year (you can see their findings here: http://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/pcstats.asp). The statistics held good news, bad news, and curious news. The good news is that books by and about African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, and American Indians are all up over the numbers for the past few years. The bad news is that, in most cases, the numbers are not significantly higher, and are still only a tiny percentage of the books published in any given year. The CCBC receives about 3500 of the approximately 5000 new books published in any given year, and of those 3500, the largest group of books, those by and about African Americans, represents only 2.5% (written by) and 5% (written about) of the total number. Neither number comes anywhere near being representative (statistics vary, but about 13% of the US population self-identifies as Black or African American). The numbers are even worse for the other groups represented, particularly for Latinos, who represent 12.5% of the US population but less than 1% of the books published every year.

The curious aspect of the statistics for me was the correlation between books written by and books written about a particular group. In terms of both Asian and Asian-Pacific Americans and Latinos, the number of books written by and the number of books written about these groups are relatively close; so, for example, 59 books were written by Latinos, and 66 were about them. Although there’s no guarantee that the books written by Latinos were also the books about them, the numbers are fairly even, suggesting at least some correlation between them. However, in terms of African Americans and Native Americans, there are more than double (African Americans) or almost double (Native Americans) the number of books written about them as by them. This means that many books are being written about these groups from outsider perspectives.

Diverse books aren’t always by diverse authors . . .

There is not necessarily anything wrong with outsider perspectives; it is impossible to tell merely from someone’s ethnic background or skin color the experiences they have had in life or what drew them to writing about difference or diversity. Some authors and illustrators from European backgrounds have produced good, thought-provoking books about how we think about racism and diversity; British author Mary Hoffman’s Amazing Grace (1991) has become an international bestseller because of its positive message about achieving your goals despite facing the racist and sexist attitudes of others, and Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac Magee (1990) introduces middle-grade readers to a character whose eyes are opened to the effects of racial prejudice in his town.

But even if all diverse children’s books by outsider groups are entirely positive, accurate, and thought-provoking portrayals (and they aren’t—both the award-winning books above have faced their fair share of criticism as well), the very fact that at least half of the books published about African Americans and American Indians are by an outsider group suggests that somehow, the experiences of these groups are a known quantity. European Americans can know what it is like to be and what matters about the history of African Americans and American Indians. And publishers, by publishing twice as many books about these groups as by authors from those groups, are reinforcing these ideas of what matters. And this has a big impact on how child readers (of any background) understand diversity in the US. Martin Luther King, Jr. matters, for example, as do the folktales of American Indians—these books have traditionally made up a large percentage of the diversity children experience through books. And I absolutely agree that they should matter, to all children (and adults, for that matter). But so too should Malcolm X. So too should the experience of American Indian tribes living both on and off reservations in our contemporary society. A quick check of any online bookseller will show that Malcolm X is considerably less present than Martin Luther King, Jr., and in less child-friendly (more textbook-y) fashion. The numbers for other Black political leaders, such as Marcus Garvey, are even worse; and I could find only one, out-of-print, book about Angela Davis. A similar search for children’s books about American Indians will reveal almost no books at all about today’s experience of being an American Indian, especially at the picture-book level

Angela Davis, where are you?

Diversity matters in children’s books. But diversity should be diverse. I don’t think that means entirely quashing the publication of books by outsider groups (especially Europeans or those of European-descent); the perspective of white authors and white characters working for justice and equality in a diverse society can teach child readers valuable lessons about standing up for what is right. I don’t think we need fewer books about Martin Luther King, Jr., or fewer versions of American Indian folktales; these books highlight important pieces of American history and culture for all readers. But these voices and these depictions should not dominate the already-too-limited diversity publishing for children. The CCBC’s statistics do indicate a change in publishing habits (when they began keeping statistics, in 1985, they found only 18 books published by Black authors and illustrators). But in order to really change these numbers for the better, publishers must begin to broaden their own definition of “the African American (or American Indian, or Latino, or Asian and Asian-Pacific American) experience”—not to mention their definition of other diverse groups, such as Gay and Lesbian Americans or multiracial Americans. If we want to teach our kids that all lives matter, we must provide children with opportunities to read about a larger percentage and a greater variety of those lives in our children’s books.

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