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.
- Walter Dean Myers, “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?”
- Christopher Myers, “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature”
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.”
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)
- Allie Jane Bruce, “Whitewashing Book Covers, Part I: What Do Kids Think?,” Lee & Low Books, 21 Nov. 2013.
- Allie Jane Bruce, “Whitewashing Book Covers, Part II: A Trip to Barnes & Noble,” Lee & Low Books, 21 Nov. 2013.
- Sayantani DasGupta, “Why Are We Still Whitewashing?” Adios Barbie, 21 Feb. 2012. “Images on magazine and book covers not only reflect what we, as a society, think is beautiful, but they seep into our individual and collective consciousness.”
- Thea James, “Cover Matters: On Whitewashing,” The Book Smugglers. 26 Feb. 2010. “Whitewashing of covers is a problem. It is a concrete, visual representation that can be held in our hands, of a much larger moral and social problem, namely: Racism.” Features guest-post by Ari.
- Cheryl Klein, “One Way to Stand Up to Whitewashing,”Brooklyn Arden, 8 July 2010.
- Justine Larbalestier, “Ain’t that a shame (updated),” Justine Larbalestier, 23 July 2009.
- Malinda Lo, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” Malinda Lo, 26 Jan. 2011.
- Urusla K. LeGuin, “Some Assumptions About Fantasy,” Ursula K. Leguin 4 June 2004. “Even when they [characters] aren’t white in the text, they are white on the cover…. I have fought many cover departments on this issue, and mostly lost. But please consider that ‘what sells’ or ‘doesn’t sell’ can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If black kids, Hispanics, Indians both Eastern and Western, don’t buy fantasy — which they mostly don’t — could it be because they never see themselves on the cover?”
- Assif Mandvi, “Whitewashing, a history” [slide show]. Salon.com 14 May 2012.
- Laura Miller, “Can you identify?” Salon.com 16 May 2012. I find Miller’s logic flawed, but I’m including this here, well, to be inclusive.
- Anna North, “Magic Under Glass: The Whitewashing of Young Adult Fiction Continues,” Jezebel 18 Jan. 2010.
- Loraine Sammy, “Whitewashing in Young Adult Literature,” RaceBending.Com, 26 Jan. 2010.
- “Adult Literacy: Literacy by Race/Ethnicity,” National Center for Education Statistics.
- “Agents Address the Diversity Gap in Children’s Publishing,” Lee and Low Books, 6 Nov. 2013. “Literary agents make up a big part of the publishing machine. … So what kind of diversity are agents seeing?”
- “Children’s Books Published in the United States by and About People of Color,” Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin at Madison
- Kate Hart, “Uncovering YA Covers: 2011,” Kate Hart, 16 May 2012. See also her “Follow Up on YA Covers,” 20 May 2012.
- Malinda Lo, “Diversity in ALA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults,” Diversity in YA. 19 Sept. 2013.
Resources, Both Historical and Ongoing Projects
- The Tar Baby and the Tomahawk: Race and Ethnic Images in Children’s Literature, 1880-1939 (University of Nebraska-Lincoln). Hat tip to my student Erica Ruscio for pointing me to this one.
- The Modernist Journals Project (Brown University & The University of Tulsa): includes The Crisis (1910-1922). Hat tip to Natalia Cecire (@ncecire on Twitter) for this one.
- “Multicultural Literature,” Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin at Madison.
- American Indians in Children’s Literature. Since I’m assembling these links for my African American Children’s Literature course, I’ve not focused on Native American children’s literature here, but Debbie Reese’s blog is the place to go for info. on this subject.
- Elizabeth Bluemle’s Shelftalker list of books “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.” See her website (scroll down) for the full rationale.
- The Brown Bookshelf, “A Black History Month Celebration of Children’s Literature.”
- Children’s Book Council’s Diversity Committee, which includes this page of Resources.
- Coretta Scott King Book Awards, American Library Association.
- The Dark Fantastic: Emancipating the Imagination. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas’s Tumblr & ongoing book project.
- Diversity in YA Tumblr, curated by Malinda Lo and Cindy Po
- Hannah Ehrlich’s “Where can I find great diverse children’s books?”, Lee & Low Books 21 Mar. 2014. This is a great resource — much stronger than what I’ve assembled here, in fact. So, please do go and check it out.
- Fledgling: Zetta Elliott’s blog. Lots of great essays here. Recommended.
- Langston Hughes testifies before House Un-American Activities Committee, 1953 (on my website)
- Mitali’s Fire Escape. Mitali Perkins’ blog.
- Racebending.com. “an international grassroots organization of media consumers that advocates for underrepresented groups in entertainment media.”
- Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Children’s and Young Adult Literature Resources includes: Exploring Diversity: Themes and Communities, Multicultural Reading Bibliography, and more specialized lists, too.
- Cinco Puntos Press
- Groundwood Books
- Just Us Books
- Lee & Low Books
- Piñata Books for Children, Middle Readers, and Young Adults (an imprint of Arte Publico Press)
- Roadrunner Press
- Zetta Elliott: @zettaelliott
- Mitali Perkins: @MitaliPerkins
- Racebending.com: @racebending
- Ebony Elizabeth Thomas: @ebonyteach
- #colormyshelf hashtag
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).