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U.S. children’s picture books continue to show predominantly white characters, an NIU study shows.
The imbalance – still an issue 50 years after Nancy Larrick’s landmark “The All-White World of Children’s Books” was published Sept. 11, 1965, in the Saturday Review – spurs young readers of color to feel that they do not matter or even that “to be white is to be better.”
So says Melanie Koss, an associate professor in the Northern Illinois University Department of Literacy and Elementary Education, who urges publishers of such books to improve the diversity depicted on their pages.
Meanwhile, she says, classroom teachers should actively seek out titles that get it right: Children are more likely to read and value the importance of reading when they can see and connect to characters who are like them.
“People want to read about themselves. But if you never see yourself in a book, what does that tell you about how you are valued? You’re not,” Koss says. “We still have a long way to go. Seeing diverse populations in children’s literature needs to become the norm, not the exception.”
Koss reviewed 455 children’s pictures books published in 2012 to measure their representation of diversity.
Her findings, reported in the latest Journal of Children’s Literature, show that the majority of that year’s picture books for children featured white as both the primary culture (45 percent) and the secondary culture (21 percent).
Black came in a distant second, presented as the primary culture in only 9 percent of books and as the secondary culture in 17 percent. Those percentages tumbled to 5 and 12, respectively, for other cultures including Asian, Latino, Native American and Middle Eastern.
Seventy-five percent of human main characters were white; blacks were protagonists in 15 percent of the books while other cultures combined for less than 6 percent of lead characters.
Thirty-two percent of primary cultures and 27 percent of secondary cultures depicted were “culturally neutral,” portraying multicultural faces or characters from minority groups without offering insights about those cultures or their traditions. Many of those characters are kept in the background or only to support the white characters.
While the numbers came as no surprise to Koss, her research confirms that “children’s literature is not authentically portraying our multiethnic world” and that “white privilege is apparent in the creation of publication of contemporary picture books.”
The research also arrives at a momentous time in children’s literature.
Just over a year ago, the “BookCon” event of Book Expo America promised a “Blockbuster Reads: Meet the Kids Authors That Dazzle” panel. Its members? Four white men. The mere announcement of the panel’s composition triggered an outcry that resulted in a social media hashtag: #WeNeedDiverseBooks.
“It’s not like people haven’t been saying this is important for a long time. It just happens to be the right point in time, and it’s being made an issue in a larger circle,” she says. “Change is going to come – gradually. Shifts in publishing don’t happen right away.”
Slowing progress, and complicating matters, is the marketplace.
Because publishers don’t expect big profits from diverse books, few are made available. And because few are for sale, few are sold, creating an endless supply-and-demand conundrum. “If the books aren’t out there, no one can buy them,” Koss says.
Ninety percent of the 2012 authors and 83 percent of the illustrators were white; blacks accounted for only 5 percent and 6 percent respectively. As a result, “counter-stories” – telling stories that challenge myths or illuminate rarely told stories of non-white populations – are “largely absent, excluding the voices and viewpoints of diverse people.”
Publishing house executives are beginning to look more closely at the diversity within their administrative and production ranks, she says.
Meanwhile, the themes of many culturally diverse children’s books fall into expected categories: African-American plots about the civil rights movement, for example, or Hispanic stories about migrant farm workers.
“All books should be multicultural and diverse. We need to have books that are good books that just happen to have diverse characters,” Koss says, adding that authors should “write the best books they can for the reasons they need to write them.”
Some works are making a dent, Koss says, thereby working to enhance consciousness and comprehension of the nation’s pluralistic fabric.
Last year’s “The Crossover,” by Kwame Alexander, winner of the 2015 Newbery Medal and the 2015 Coretta Scott King Honor Award, uses poetry to tell the story of 12-year-old African-American brothers for whom basketball is everything.
Nicola Yoon’s “Everything, Everything,” scheduled for release Sept. 1, features a multiracial teenager as the protagonist. However, her dual-ethnicity is only a characteristic and not key to the plot. “She is half Japanese and half black,” Koss says. “This is just who she is.”
With regard to gender, Koss found that nearly 60 percent of the main characters in the 2012 books were male; only 36 percent were female. Of those females, 62 percent fell into “stereotypical gender roles, including traditional jobs such as housekeeper, stay-at-home mother, teacher and ballet dancer.”
In terms of disability, 9 percent of the books included characters with disabilities (other than wearing glasses). Of those, 43 percent had physical disabilities. Removing pirates and their eye patches, peg legs and hooks from the survey resulted in six characters who were blind, six who were deaf and 20 who used either wheelchairs or canes. One character had a learning disability and another dementia.
Twelve main characters had physical disabilities (other than wearing glasses) and just one had a cognitive disability.
While teachers must critically consider the ever-diversifying enrollment in U.S. preschools and elementary classrooms as they select picture books, Koss assigns a similar responsibility to parents.
“Read to your children,” she says. “Take your kids to the library. Make an effort to find quality books, and make sure those books have your children reflected.”