Importance of Diversity in Children’s Literature

by Madeline Elier

Reading is fundamental to the human experience. It gives us a space to learn about the world and begin to process how to exist and interact with others as social beings.

Growing up, I read books like Charlotte’s Web, Alice in Wonderland, and Madeline, all of which portrayed a lifestyle that was similar to mine. The (white) characters looked like me, talked like me, and lived lives similar to mine. I didn’t think twice about the fact that this was not the reality for every child.

The Cooperative Children’s Book Center, looked at 3,134 books published in 2018. Here’s what they found regarding racial and ethnic diversity of characters in children’s books:

·       50% White

·       27% Animals/Other

·       10% African/African American

·       7% Asian Pacific Islander/Asian Pacific American

·       5% Latinx

·       1% America Indians/First Nations

Diversity? Hardly. A lack of diversity in the literature itself is not the only place where representation is lacking. The publishing industry, the editors and readers who serve as gatekeepers, who decide which stories are amplified and which are shut out, does not reflect the rich diversity of the United States either. Lee and Low books, the largest multicultural children’s book publisher in the United States, released the Diversity Baseline Survey in 2019. The results found that publishing industry is 76% white, 74% cis women, 81% straight, and 89% non-disabled. “The book industry has the power to shape culture in big and small ways. If the people who work in publishing are not a diverse group, how can diverse voices truly be represented in its books?”

A lack of diversity and representation is present in all areas of children’s literature – characters, publishers, marketers, authors, and illustrators. However, this narrative is beginning to shift. With increased conversations around racism, ableism, sexism as a whole in America, social media campaigns, such as #WeNeedDiverseBooks, have brought about the need to “produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people.” Yes, these conversations are exciting and give me hope that we’re moving in the right direction, but the push to be more inclusive and diverse must come from a place of authenticity. Stories should accurately represent the narratives and experiences of people of color, the disabled, non-traditional family structures, etc. Diversifying the literature must be done so in a manner that gives respect and pride to the underrepresented, making sure not to misrepresent, tokenize for profit, or be culturally insensitive.

 I work at Target and I have noticed their bookshelves becoming more empathetic and inclusive with titles such as Hair and Love by Matthew A. Cherry, I am Enough, by Grace Byers, and Antiracist Baby by Ibram X. Kendi and Ashley Lukashevsky. Children can now walk the aisles and see their stories being told and that brings me deep joy and gladness.

Things are beginning to move in the right direction, but we still need to have this conversation. Because as the world becomes more interconnected and society is shifting to a posture of openness and acceptance, stories are more easily available to share. Stories that have been told not to be shared are being given space to be told. A vocabulary is being crafted to cultivate a sense of belonging for children. New perspectives bring new conversations and ideas to explore. Children are able to gain a wider perspective on the diverse world that we live in today. I am hopeful that through increased diversity and representation in literature, the next generation of young people will be equipped to be more open, accepting, and empathic to the world and the vast stories that humanity shares.

 Here are some helpful resources to get started in diversifying you and your little one’s bookshelf! Yes, work on being mindful about YOUR reading list too!

·       Children’s Books to Celebrate Diversity List

·       Indigenous Reads by Indigenous Peoples Book List

·       Children’s Picture Books about Disabilities List

·   Children’s Books by Authors and Illustrators of Color

·       Children’s Books About Non-traditional Families

·   LGBTQ Kids’ Book List

·       Modern First Library: curates gift bundles of books

·       We Need Diverse Books: grassroots organization of children’s book lovers that advocates changes in publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people

·   Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators

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