“The Boundaries of Imagination”; or, the All-White World of Children’s Books, 2014

Christopher Myers, Where Are the People of Color in Children's Books? (art, photographed, from New York Times, 16 Mar. 2014)

Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?

— Walter Dean Myers, “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?”

too often today’s books remain blind to the everyday reality of thousands of children. Children of color remain outside the boundaries of imagination. The cartography we create with this literature is flawed.

— Christopher Myers, “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature”

In case you missed it, yesterday’s New York Times (16 Mar. 2014) carried two essays that should do what Nancy Larrick’s famous “All-White World of Children’s Books” (Saturday Review, 11 Sept. 1965) did nearly 50 years ago: Sound the call to the publishing business to increase representation of people of color in children’s books. If you haven’t read these articles, please take a moment and do so.

As Walter Dean Myers notes, though there are now more people of color in books for young readers than there were in 1969 (when he entered the children’s book field), there are also more young readers of color. So, “Today, when about 40 percent of public school students nationwide are black and Latino, the disparity of representation is even more egregious.”

Christopher Myers, Where Are the People of Color in Children's Books? (art, photographed, from New York Times, 16 Mar. 2014)

These articles — and many others that I’ve read over the last few years (links below) — should point to a critical mass of support for increased representation of non-white people in children’s books. There are already efforts under way, like The Birthday Party Pledge (promise to give multicultural books to the children in your life) and Hands Across the Sea (promoting literacy in the Caribbean).

The pressing need for books featuring children of color inspires me to share some resources I’ve gathered for my own research and for students in my graduate-level African American Children’s Literature class — a course I’m teaching for the first time this semester (and which will, I promise, improve in subsequent years; this is my first attempt).  I’m aware that these resources are not comprehensive, and so please feel free to add suggestions in the comments.  Indeed, I’d be grateful if you would.

Essays on the Need for More People of Color in Children’s and YA Books

  • Laura Atkins, “White Privilege and Children’s Publishing: A Web 2.0 Case Study,” write4children 1.2 (April 2010). Note: document is a pdf. Scroll down to page 21.
  • Regina Sierra Carter, “YA Literature: The Inside and Cover Story,” The Journal of Research on Libraries and Young Adults, 18 Apr. 2013. “America is steadily becoming more diverse. So should YA literature. “
  • Jen Doll, “The Ongoing Problem of Race in Y.A.,” The Atlantic Wire, 26 Apr. 2012.  Great overview, with lots of links to relevant articles.
  • Zetta Elliott, “Decolonizing the Imagination,” Horn Book, Mar.-Apr. 2010. “My goal as a writer of speculative fiction is to engage the tropes of captivity, migration, and transformation in a narrative that is thrilling, compelling, and revealing…. I believe speculative fiction generates the kind of narrative possibility that enables us to revise, re-view, and reclaim the past.”
  • Zetta Elliott, “Stranger Than Fiction: Depicting Trauma in African American Children’s Books” or “One Hot Mess,” Fledgling: Zetta Elliott’s Blog, 16 June 2012.
  • Josh Finney, “Yes, But Is It Racist? Science Fiction and the Significance of 9%,” Broken Frontier, 10 Sept. 2013. “Over the years, I’ve known plenty of writers who’ve shied away from creating black characters due to the perceived consequences of getting it wrong.”
  • Malinda Lo, “A Year of Thinking About Diversity,” Diversity in YA, 19 Dec. 2011. “The concept of diversity is complex, messy, and charged. It means different things to different people. “
  • Jason Low, “Why hasn’t the number of multicultural books increased in eighteen years?” Lee & Low Books, 17 June 2013. Seeking answers, Low talks to Kathleen T. Horning, Nikki Grimes, Rudine Sims Bishop, Debbie Reese, Betsy Bird, Sarah Park Dahlen, Jane M. Gagni, and others.
  • Jessie-Lane Metz, “Ally-phobia: On the Trayvon Martin Ruling, White Feminism, and the Worst of Best Intentions,” The Toast, 24 Jul. 2013. “When a person of colour speaks to their own experiences of racism, they are speaking to a collective pain, and speaking truth to power. When a person with white skin privilege gives an anecdote about racism, whether their own or someone else’s, they are exposing more racialized people to this discrimination, and reasserting their own privilege. The narrative is no longer about Black victims of racist crimes and a deeply flawed justice system, it is about white feelings about Black bodies and their experiences.”
  • Christopher Myers, “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature,” New York Times, 16 Mar. 2014. “children of color… recognize the boundaries being imposed upon their imaginations, and are certain to imagine themselves well within the borders they are offered, to color themselves inside the lines.
  • Christopher Myers, “Young Dreamers,” Horn Book, 6 Aug. 2013. “The plethora of threatening images of young black people has real-life effects. But if people can see us as young dreamers, boys with hopes and doubts and playfulness, instead of potential threats or icons of societal ills, perhaps they will feel less inclined to kill us.”
  • Walter Dean Myers, “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?,” New York Times 16 Mar. 2014. “this was exactly what I wanted to do when I wrote about poor inner-city children — to make them human in the eyes of readers and, especially, in their own eyes. I need to make them feel as if they are part of America’s dream, that all the rhetoric is meant for them, and that they are wanted in this country.”
  • Walter Dean Myers, “I Actually Thought We Would Revolutionize the Industry,” New York Times, 9 Nov. 1986. “if we continue to make black children nonpersons by excluding them from books and by degrading the black experience, and if we continue to neglect white children by not exposing them to any aspect of other racial and ethnic experiences in a meaningful way, we will have a next racial crisis.”
  • Mitali Perkins, “Straight Talk on Race: Challenging the Stereotypes in Kids’ Books,” School Library Journal 1 Apr. 2009. “Here are five questions that’ll help you and your students discern messages about race in stories. Try these in the classroom, and my guess is that you may end up engaging teens who had seemed reluctant to share their literary opinions.”
  • Alyssa Rosenberg, “Malinda Lo on Why White Creators Default to Colorblindness,”  ThinkProgress.org 20 Feb. 2013. “Race-blindness is more risk management strategy than a means of actually making television, movies, and books more diverse.”
  • Meg Rosoff, “You can’t protect children by lying to them — the truth will hurt less.” Guardian, 20 Sept. 2013. “There is a theory that children’s literature should uphold the idyll of childhood, offering charming scenarios and happy endings to protect the innocent from life’s harsh realities. But children have extraordinary antennae for the things no one will explain.” This essay isn’t about race. It’s about not lying, and its insights are applicable in this list — that’s why I’ve included it.
  • Shadra Strickland, “Do Great Work and the Rest Will Follow,” Horn Book March-April 2014. “It’s strange being black and a woman in a field that has historically celebrated white male contributions. Before I was published, I wondered if the only way in was to write and illustrate stories about slavery and black history. When all of my graduate school friends landed book contracts before me, at times I thought, ‘Is it because I paint black people?’ I talked myself down from that ledge, but why was I up there to begin with?”

Essays on the Need for More People of Color on the Covers (a.k.a. Essays Against Whitewashing)

Numbers

Resources, Both Historical and Ongoing Projects

Publishers

Twitter

Penultimate note: I’ve not included most of the critical texts on our syllabus, because my students already know what those are (and so will you, if you follow the link!).

Final note: As I said above, suggestions welcome. Thanks!

Page last updated, 4:15 pm CDT, 21 Mar 2014. For their suggestions, thanks to Laura Atkins, Sarah Hamburg, Sheila Barry, Kate Pritchard, Keilin H., Hannah Ehrlich (Lee & Low Books).

Image credits: Art by Christopher Myers, from New York Times, 16 Mar. 2014. I decided to photograph my copy of the newspaper rather than just lift the art from the Times‘ website simply because I like print culture. You can find clearer digital images on the Times‘ site.

13 Comments »

  1. Laura Atkins Said,

    March 17, 2014 @ 2:14 pm

    Thanks so much for this list, Phil. It’s timely and useful. You might want to have a look at my essay, White Privilege and Children’s Publishing: A Web 2.0 Case Study. It’s published by the write4children journal out of Winchester University. http://www.winchester.ac.uk/academicdepartments/EnglishCreativeWritingandAmericanStudies/Documents/w4cissue2cApr.pdf

  2. Dave Ball Said,

    March 17, 2014 @ 4:24 pm

    What’s your policy on auditors? Just great stuff here.

  3. Philip Nel Said,

    March 17, 2014 @ 5:22 pm

    Thanks, Laura and Dave!

    Laura: I have added your essay to the list (of essays).

  4. Kate Capshaw Said,

    March 17, 2014 @ 7:14 pm

    Fantastic resources, Phil. Thank you for compiling this list.

  5. Amy Billone Said,

    March 17, 2014 @ 7:34 pm

    Incredibly helpful, fascinating and relevant. Thank you!

  6. Kate Pritchard Said,

    March 17, 2014 @ 8:23 pm

    This is a great collection of resources. Thank you for putting it together!

    Elizabeth Bluemle of PW’s ShelfTalker blog also maintains a database of children’s books with diverse characters in which race is not a major plot point. Here’s the link:

    http://www.librarything.com/catalog/shelftalker

    And here’s how she describes it on her website:

    “A lot of people have been asking for the link to my database of children’s books (baby to YA) featuring main characters of color where race is not the driving force of the story. In other words, while race is of course an important part of a character’s identity, in these books, the plot does not revolve around race, racism, intolerance, or political/​historical events based in racial issues. The issues-based books are easy to locate; it’s harder to find lists [of] mysteries, adventure stories, fantasies, picture books, etc., that happen to feature a nonwhite main character. So I made this one.”

  7. Keilin H. Said,

    March 20, 2014 @ 11:33 am

    Hi Phil!

    This is an amazing list of resources! Thanks so much for sharing! Some other great links that people should check out are some blog posts from LEE & LOW BOOKS, a publisher based in NYC that focuses on diverse children’s books.

    They actually looked at the CCBC statistics for the past 18 years, and created an infographic that I think presents a very powerful visual: http://blog.leeandlow.com/2013/06/17/why-hasnt-the-number-of-multicultural-books-increased-in-eighteen-years/

    There was also a two-part series where the topic of whitewashing book covers was discussed with sixth graders in NY: http://blog.leeandlow.com/2013/11/21/whitewashing-book-covers-what-do-kids-think-part-i/
    http://blog.leeandlow.com/2013/11/22/whitewashing-book-covers-a-trip-to-barnes-noble-part-ii/

    Lastly, there’s another excellent blog post where LEE & LOW publisher Jason Low talks to literary agents about the diversity gap in publishing: http://blog.leeandlow.com/2013/11/06/literary-agents-discuss-the-diversity-gap-in-publishing/

  8. Philip Nel Said,

    March 21, 2014 @ 4:19 pm

    Thanks for the links, Kate Pritchard and Keilin H.! I’ve added them above. Sheila Barry (on Twitter) inspired me to add a list of publishers, info. which is also on the excellent Lee & Low post by Hannah Ehrlich (above, under resources). And thanks to Kate Capshaw (whose book on Children’s Literature and the Harlem Renaissance you should read) and Amy Billone for the positive feedback, too.

  9. {diversity in lit} Friday #07: (re)sources | omphaloskepsis Said,

    March 21, 2014 @ 6:32 pm

    […] –Phil Nel on his Nine Kinds of Pie blog, (responds to the above two articles) and has some fantastic links for essays, authors, etc. “’The Boundaries of Imagination’; or, the All-White World of Children’s Books, 2014” […]

  10. Terri Said,

    March 27, 2014 @ 10:47 pm

    I see white and Asian American characters in books but fewer blacks and I have heard various writer friends that they would not be interested writing “black children’s books” because :
    (1) White and Asian American kids are the ones who do the most reading and they don’t want to read about black kids, (2)White and Asian-American parents do not want to buy books for their children as gifts that feature blacks,and (3)If a white or Asian-American writer were to write about a black character, a lot of blacks would whine that they got it all wrong and didn’t understand the victim status of blacks. I work with kids of all ages and can tell you, you can publish all of the books about blacks that you want to but the white, Asian American and Hispanic kids will not voluntarily read them and their families won’t buy them. They will do best as niche publications written by black authors.

  11. SCBWI Oregon: resources mentioned for writing with cultural awareness/responsiveness – Sara Ryan Said,

    May 18, 2014 @ 12:01 pm

    […] “The Boundaries of Imagination,” Or, The All-White World Of Children’s Books, 2014, a collection of articles curated by Philip Nel […]

  12. It’s Not Me, It’s You: Letting Go of the Status Quo | ONews.US - Latest Breaking News Said,

    May 18, 2014 @ 1:07 pm

    […] I am happy to see this important issue garner the attention it deserves. Activism around diversity isn’t new, of course, but repeated calls for change over the past few decades have largely fallen on deaf […]

  13. It’s Not Me, It’s You: Letting Go of the Status Quo | Vault | The Arabian Post Said,

    May 19, 2014 @ 12:41 am

    […] I am happy to see this important issue garner the attention it deserves. Activism around diversity isn’t new, of course, but repeated calls for change over the past few decades have largely fallen on deaf […]

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