Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Non-Diverse World of Children's Literature

The lack of diversity in children's books is a stubbornly persistent issue. Years ago, Nancy Larrick, a former president of the International Reading Association, sparked a vigorous and heated debate when she wrote in the Saturday Review about the "all-white world of children's books." In the article, Larrick noted that, while "integration may be the law of the land... most of the books children see are all white."

Larrick wrote that in 1965, and, in 2014, the world of children's literature remains a basically all-white world. According to the latest statistics gathered by the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, of 3,200 children's books published in 2013, just 93 were about African Americans, 57 were about Latinos, 69 were about Asian/Pacific Islanders, and 34 were about American Indians. Clearly, these numbers don't reflect the reality of our increasingly multicultural country.

Folks in the world of children's literature have spent much time recently discussing the lack of diversity in children's books and how to remedy it. A great example of the recent focus is this post from the blog of Lee & Low, a publisher of multicultural books, whose tag line is "About Everyone. For Everyone." In that Lee & Low blog post, children's author Uma Krishnaswami noted: "It seems to me that as long as so-called 'multicultural' books, even award-winning ones, are placed in a separate category and not judged and read and recommended as good books on their own merit, this will continue to be the case."

Then last Sunday, Walter Dean Myers, a much-acclaimed author of numerous children's and teen novels and a former National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, brought the issue out for the general public to ponder. In a powerful, eloquent essay published in The New York Times and titled "Where Are the People of Color in Children's Books?," Myers talked about the importance of books in his own childhood, and then his increasing dismay as he matured that there were no characters like him in the books he read. As he writes in the Times: "As I discovered who I was, a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine...Books did not become my enemies. They were more like friends with whom I no longer felt comfortable."

Christopher Myers with his father, Walter Dean Myers.
Myers' essay was paired with another, written by his son Christopher Myers, an award-winning children's book creator in his own right. In "The Apartheid of Children's Literature," Christopher Myers says bluntly that "(t)he business of children’s literature enjoys ever more success, sparking multiple movie franchises and crossover readership, even as representations of young people of color are harder and harder to find."
Christopher Myers

If you haven't read the two essays by Myers, father and son, I urge you to do so. It's a hugely important topic, and the Myers' essays poignantly detail the human cost of the lack of diversity in children's books. Walter Dean Myers, for one, hasn't given up, but the urgency of addressing the issue is increasing. As he concludes in his Times essay: "Black history is usually depicted as folklore about slavery, and then a fast-forward to the civil rights movement. Then I’m told that black children, and boys in particular, don’t read. Small wonder.
There is work to be done."

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