Why Representation Really Matters: Diversity in Children's Books
In this post, I share a personal story exposing the effects from the lack of representation in media; some statistics and research findings on the state of the Black community in children's books and why it matters; and what we can do about it.
A few months ago, I styled my daughter’s hair. Any parent-turned-hairstylist of a curly girl can likely relate. It’s a full-on tussle with leg lock and contortions to perfectly coif the hair to last a week, if you’re lucky. There’s a point here. Hang with me. After I finished, looking proudly down upon the top of her plaited hair, my daughter felt around… and cried. Oh, she cried her little heart out. “I don’t want it like this, I want it like this,” she motioned, carrying her hand down from the top of the head past her shoulders. For several minutes, the adults tried to figure it out until we realized she wanted it like the doll’s hair. Long. Straight. It took me back to my early days when, as my mom recounts, I came home crying too, asking why I didn’t look like Molly, my sweetest, bestest friend at the time. Blonde hair and blue eyes. I took stock of my daughter’s world and realized her dolls were white, her shows featured white characters, most of her books were the same. She didn’t see herself anywhere.
I happened to be hosting a videoconference for my sorority sisters that same day or so. I shared with them what happened and let them know she’d likely make an appearance – she likes to see Mama "work" on the computer. Sure enough, in waltzes Emmy, and what do my sorors do?
They oooh and aaah to Emmy about her hair, a screen full of Black women telling her she’s beautiful. It’s as if she saw herself in them. I haven’t heard too much complaint about wanting long, straight hair since then. Well, maybe the long part. Now she likes us to show her how long it is when we stretch out her curls and they bounce back. Ay.
What's sad, as well? The fact that I'm 30 years older than her and am just recently coming to terms with my own self after a 15-year journey of figuring out the beauty and authenticity of natural hair. It's still a process - unlearning that straight (unnatural) is beautiful because it's what's been pushed on me in media (media meaning TV and songs and books and billboards). This isn't about hair, though.
What’s the Point?
Here’s the point. The question is whether representation is important in children’s books and why. Yes, it’s important. It’s critical. “Children shape their reality according to the models they build with many bricks: stories, songs, films, plays, experiences, and many other factors [that] help them in codifying the reality into common patterns to be reproduced. … In particular, stories play an important role in children’s representation: they provide information and models, they guide the reader through the discovery of the world…and they convey values[,] such as friendship, empathy, courage, sense of belonging, emotions, and diversity[,] which are essential for child development and growth.” Arianna Braga, The importance of children’s representation in literature and media, Humanium (March 2022).
If a child never sees himself in media, he can feel invisible, forgotten, like people don’t care about him or don’t want to know about him. If he never sees other characters who look and talk and walk like him defeating the dragons and becoming the hero, maybe he’s less likely to think he can do it. After all, kids learn through modeling. Stories show children what’s possible.
Here's another example. Allegedly starting in 1886, runners had been attempting to break the four-minute mile barrier. It wasn't until 1954 that it happened - Roger Bannister ran 3:59 that day. As Bill Taylor noted in his article, What Breaking the 4-Minute Mile Taught Us About the Limits of Conventional Thinking, "When Bannister broke the mark, even his most ardent rivals breathed a sigh of relief. At last, somebody did it! And once they saw it could be done, they did it too. Just 46 days [after] Bannister's feat, John Landy, an Australian runner, not only broke the barrier again, [but] with a time of 3 minutes 58 seconds. Then, just a year later, three runners broke the four-minute barrier in a single race. Over the last half century, more than a thousand runners have conquered a barrier that had once been considered hopelessly out of reach." What Taylor learned is that "some innovator changes the game, and that which was thought to be unreachable becomes a benchmark, something for others to shoot for."
Now, apply that to books and imagine what we can spark inside our children if only they are exposed to characters like them doing extraordinary things. What if, instead of limiting their creativity and world of possibilities by inundating them with unauthentic characters, we empower them with stories that act as mirrors? “Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.” Rudine Sims Bishop in her article Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors. Not to mention that we can teach and train our children through the characters they see and stories they consume. After all, according to “the Cultivation Theory…exposure to media helps to shape thoughts, perceptions, and behaviors, and viewers adopt the assumptions and beliefs of media content as reality.” Braga, The importance of children’s representation in literature and media (citing G. Gerbner & L. Gross, Living with Television: The Violence Profile, Journal of Communication, Vol. 26, Issue 2 (June 1976)).
“In the world of children’s books, villagers can protect their water from a black snake, dark skin is as beautiful as the night sky, and a little girl’s two puffs of hair can make her feel like she’s floating above the clouds.” Racial diversity in children’s books grows, but slowly, The Associated Press (March 2021). “When you see yourself reflected in the pages of a book, you’re part of the conversation, part of the story. You’re not ignored. It gives you a sense of ownership to the world that you’re in.” Id. (quoting Nina Crews). “Children are not just the passive recipients of what they read. They should be seen as active subjects, creating and recreating themselves in relation to the representations that surround them.” Andrea Adomako, Black stories matter: on the whiteness of children’s books (July 2017). Books have the power “to rescue childhood from a culture that has dehumanized black children” and all the “others” similarly marginalized, to rescue childhood from a culture that has “denied them healthy and expansive models for growing up.” Id.
Another reason it's important too, a reason I myself am guilty of overlooking as I focus on my own community: non-Black children learn from our books as well. “They need the books as windows onto reality, not just on imaginary worlds. They need books that will help them understand the multicultural nature of the world they live in, and their place as a member of just one group, as well as their connections to all other humans.” Bishop, Mirrors. “Representation should not be an option, it should be a duty.” Onyinye Iwu.
What the Research Shows
“According to the Brookings Institution, there are more BIPOC folx than Whites under the age of 15 years old in the U.S.” Krystal Jagoo, VeryWell Mind, The Importance of Representation in Books (March 2021). Meanwhile, the books don’t reflect that reality. “Books about White children, talking bears, trucks, monsters, potatoes, etc. represent nearly three quarters (71%) of children’s and young adult books published in 2019,” as reported by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center. Id.
But these numbers don’t stop with the books or the authors or the illustrators. They’re reflected in the numbers of who runs the industry, i.e., 79% of which was white in 2015, only decreasing to 76% in 2019, thus making room for more ethnic employees. Id. Jagoo noted that “Laura Atkins, children’s book editor, describes how, in her line of work, books are shaped by the tastes of editors, the culture of publishers, and potentially biased perceptions about who will buy and read books about such diverse experiences. ‘Children’s publishing, in both the U.S. and the U.K., is dominated by White, middle class women at lower levels, and men at higher levels of management, which inevitably affects perceptions of audience.’” Id. These issues are also reflected in the “policies and strategies for entry-level pay, author advances, employee retention, professional mobility, mentorship, book sales, audience development, and marketing,” i.e., another disjointed pipeline in yet another industry. James Tager & Clarisse Rosaz Shariyf, Reading Between the Lines: Race, Equity, and Book Publishing, PEN America (October 2022).
Nevertheless, it’s important to remember the adults behind the scenes, in part for the following reason: “Children’s literature often tells us more about adults than it does kids. It reflects what adults want children to think. You can look at the children’s literature and get some fascinating insights into the racial imagination of adults, and what they wanted to replicate in their kids.” Dan Moser, Trends in children’s lit track America’s racial history, research shows (March 2021) (quoting Amanda Gailey, associate professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln). According to Professor Gailey who studied the post-Reconstruction era onward, “[t]he most common message that kids were getting about race, overwhelmingly, is complete erasure of Black people.” Id.
In a separate study using artificial intelligence, a group of researchers found that, even where Black and brown people are depicted in stories, “children’s books generally skew toward lighter skin and male representation.” Anjali Adukia, Alex Eble, Emileigh Harrison, Hakizumwami Birali Runesha, Teodora Szasz, What We Teach About Race and Gender: Representation in Images and Text of Children’s Books, Becker Friedman Institute (April 2021). Diversity is more than “race” or ethnicity. Diversity includes skin tone and hair type and dialect and cultural attire and religion and physical abilities and so on.
Even more? equally? troubling is when there are representative characters but not from the character’s own community. In fact, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center analyzed more than 11,000 children’s books from 2018 through 2020 and found the following:
Children’s Books By and/or About Black, Indigenous and People of Color Received by the CCBC–U.S. Publishers Only 2018-
Last Updated: October 31, 2022
NOTE: Data on books by and about Black, Indigenous and People of Color compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC), School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison, based on its work analyzing the content of books published for children and teens received by the CCBC annually. Last accessed on January 5, 2023. See CCBC.education.wisc.edu.
“What am I seeing here?” You’re seeing low numbers of children’s books showing diverse characters, generally. You’re also seeing more books about Black/African people than by them (439 vs. 308, respectively, in 2021).
Let’s say a non-Black author is writing about how it feels to be the only Black student in class. That non-Black author hasn’t experienced it him/herself, hasn’t talked to a Black student to know what it’s like, doesn’t have the hair type or skin tone of the Black character in the book, and so on. A couple of things can happen: (1) The little Black child reading the book can think something is wrong with herself because she would react differently from how the book character did. (2) The author may be (un)intentionally passing along a message to Black children that those children then adopt because they don’t have any other book models to test against. “If children do not have the possibility to see people with their identities and features being portrayed in a positive way, they may rely on the assumption that their identity is fully represented by those stereotypes [that] define who they are. The ‘problems with stereotypes is not the fact they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make on story become the only story.’” Braga, The importance of children’s representation in literature and media (quoting Chimamanda Adiche, The danger of a single story (July 2019)).
As Toni Sturdivant learned from her own research watching young girls play with dolls they select on their own, it appears Black children still experience the same anti-Black bias now as they did in the 1940s due, in part, to what they're exposed to (poor representations of Blacks in media or no representations at all). “When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part.” Bishop, Mirrors. Others have found that “[c]hildren who are missing and underrepresented may either take on deficit societal notions of their culture or reject literacy as relevant for their lives.” Kathy G. Short, What’s Trending in Children’s Literature and Why It Matters, Language Arts, Vol. 95, No. 5 (May 2018), citing (R.S. Bishop, 2003, Reframing the debate about cultural authenticity).
In full candor, I’ve had to check myself here too. There are a number of stories on my heart because I want to expose other kids to life they may not already know. It started with cystic fibrosis and expanded into other childhood diseases, for example. But I don’t have firsthand experience with any of them and only tangential awareness of a few.
So What Can We Do?
- For starters, where I am talking about communities other than my own, I plan to consult someone in that community. There’s something called a “sensitivity reader,” where a person reads with a focus on determining whether the language or story or imagery is offensive or downright wrong, such as misidentifying cultures or using a foreign word incorrectly or stereotyping.
- We can buy more diverse books. Three I have lined up right now are: Sulwe, We Are Water Protectors, and Born on the Water.
- In fact, why don’t we visit a diverse or indie (independently owned) bookstore? There’s reportedly the oldest – Marcus Books in Oakland, California; The Listening Tree in Decatur, Georgia; or even online with Ashay by the Bay, to name just a few. McKenzie Jean-Philippe published a list of 127 Black-Owned Bookstores in 2020 so we have no excuse “trying to find one.” Thank you for the gem!
- Write about your own authentic experiences from characters like you. I had to check myself here too, being honest. I previously mentioned it with my cystic fibrosis book – how when I wrote the first draft, there was a bee and a young white boy because of my experience with CF through my dear friend. But after needing additional testing to rule out my Afro-Latina daughter didn’t have it, I quickly learned CF knows no race or skin tone boundaries. I removed the boy and focused on the bee. Since then, I decided that, unless it makes sense to do otherwise, all of my books will feature Black characters. Why not? That’s my reality. And my reality is what inspires my storytelling. Why change what I see? Why not share what I see with little kids who might see through my same eyes, or with other little kids who would like to? Let's not “use such a feeble excuse as ‘the market’ to limit what our society can be.” Chris Myers in Children’s Literature: Apartheid or Just A General Lack of Color? (2014).
- Support the efforts of organizations like We Need Diverse Books and the See What We See (SWWS) coalition that serves as a guide (recommended, recommended with caveat, not recommended) for those selecting books for children across a variety of subjects / themes, including activism, bullying, criminal justice, and more. The Brown Bookshelf also publishes 28 Days Later, a list daily list of African-American-authored books through February each year, and Black Children’s Books and Authors also promotes traditional and indie-published books by Black authors.
- Continue to learn about this important issue, including from these additional sources: Dashka Slater, The Uncomfortable Truth About Children’s Books, Mother Jones; Quintin R. Bostic II, When They See Us in the Pages: The Representation of Black and Brown Males in Children’s Literature, Georgia State University (January 2022); Onnie Rogers, Why Representation Matters in Kids’ Media (October 2021); Bernice A. Pescosolido, Elizabeth Grauerholz & Melissa A. Milkie, Culture and Conflict: The Portrayal of Blacks in U.S. Children’s Picture Books Through the Mid- and Late-Twentieth Century, American Sociological Association (1997).
Let me know your thoughts on this topic. What do you see when you're shopping for children's books? Can you find what you're looking for? What would you like to see more of on the bookshelves? How do you take steps to close the gap described in this post?
Thanks for reading! See you next time.