Diversity in children’s literature and publishing is needed. Publishing gathers the activities of “producing and selling a book, magazine or a newspaper”. Reading is an important part of a child’s personal development and literature including magazines can help it. There is a lot of talk about the benefits of reading for children: improving concentration, enriching vocabulary, or helping them develop their imagination and imagine the world around them. How a child of color can imagine the world around him/her, when it comes to the dominance of white children’s literature characters?
Diversity in children’s books is still not common in the Western world. Moreover, the representation of characters of color is still very stereotypical and inaccurate.
The lack of diversity in children’s literature and misrepresentation
Estrella is currently working in a bilingual kindergarten in Berlin, which is not the usual path given her studies in social and cultural anthropology. She loves her work. “I find my work so rewarding because I have this untouchable insight into the mind of a child, their curiosity, from questions that are asked by children discovering the world, how does it work, from how they experience it,” she explains. She started to get more and more interested in the children’s books available in the library. She found a lot with outdated notions of family, gender roles and stereotypes about ethnic groups that are portrayed in children’s books.
Diversity in children’s literature is still undermined by little or no representation and commonly replaced with stereotypical representations. The book “Tintin in America” is a good example of this issue. Tintin found himself chased by Amerindians who wanted to kill him. Dangerous, aggressive, savage, these are the qualifiers associated with them: “This is the first and only portrayal that children see about native Americans,” she says. “It was mind-blowing for her.
How many people of color are in children’s books? According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center 2018 study, 77% of the protagonists in children’s books are either animals or white characters.
Let take the example of Native American in American children’s literature and the famous and controversial story: Pocahontas.
Pocahontas, a story between inaccuracies and misrepresentation
Native Americans in children’s literature are misrepresented, a lot of historical facts are inaccurate or are not mentioned. Pocahontas is a good example of it. Her real name was Mataoka but was nicknamed Pocahontas. She was the daughter of Powhatan chief Wahunsenaca. John Smith, presented as a soldier and explorer on Wikipedia (in my sense a colonizer), landed in what is now Virginia with other settlers. One day, he was captured by Native Americans. In John Smith’s writing, he claimed Pocahontas saved her life. According to Biography, „Smith may have exaggerated or invented the account to enhance Pocahontas’s standing. Another theory suggests that Smith may have misunderstood what had happened to him in Powhatan’s longhouse.“ She was helping him during his captivity. John Smith came back to England.
In 1613, Pocahontas was kidnapped by Captain Samuel Argall for ransom. During her captivity, she was abused. When she arrived in England, she learned English and about the Christian religion. Then, she married John Rolfe and was baptized Rebecca „Pocahontas“. John Rolfe and Rebecca „Pocahontas“ Rolfe went to London, to the Royal Court. She was used by John Rolfe for being the well-civilized savage. He aimed to have more support for the colony of Virginia. The Rolfe decided to return to Virginia in 1617, but Rebecca „Pocahontas“ died. The story is much less romantic than Walt Disney’s.
What should we remember about it? That we make a romanticized and idealized version of the real story of Pocahontas. Then this story completely forgets to shed light on the genocide perpetrated against the Amerindians. The story of Pocahontas is one if not the most widely shared children’s stories depicting Amerindians. The story children receive is a one-sided and biased version of history. One of the many reasons why diversity in children’s books is important.
The importance of diversity in children’s literature
In an article by Africultures, an art and culture magazine, researcher Anne Schneider explains why diversity in literature is important. The identification process remains strong in children’s literature. The child will discover ways of thinking, living, descriptions of other environments than his/her own. He/she needs to identify himself/herself with heroes to grow up and make his/her choices. The lack of diversity in children’s books plays definitely a role. But the importance of diversity in children’s literature is neglected with the absence of representative heroes in children’s literature.
Books are among the tools that will influence the child, in which he/she will attach importance to recognizing himself/herself in the story. Rudine Sims Bishop, a Professor Emerita of Education at the Ohio State University, wrote an essay called „Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Doors“. „When children cannot find themselves, rejected 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 apart. (Bishop, 1990b, p. 557)“. Rudine Sims Bishop explained in this video why diverse books matters.
For this to change, diversity and inclusivity must be priorities in the book industry. Starting with publishing houses.
Publishing is still white
Publishing houses are responsible for producing and distributing books. They are the ones who have the last word. And yet, publishing houses are not representative of the American population. They are mostly white. According to a survey, 86% of employees are white. In 2010, at Harlem Book Fair, the lack of diversity was discussed.
Why is it important to have more diversity in publisher houses?
We must tell our own stories. Publishers with people from the same social class, the same ethnic group, will consciously or unconsciously choose the same type of books. They may not always understand the importance of having stories that include people from different ethnic groups, without integrating the usual stereotypes.
Laura Atkins, an independent children’s books editor, explains how publishing houses lack diversity and how it affects the industry. “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 the audience. This same situation applies in channels of sales and distribution, as I discovered when the single buyer for Barnes & Noble’s children’s books decided not to purchase DeShawn Days for almost any of their stores around the country, as she didn’t think it would be of strong enough interest to their consumers. Institutional perceptions of buyers’ sociological and cultural identities, and expectations about how to reach these buyers, all have a major impact on publishing decisions. This also perpetuates deeper cultural and power dynamics ”.
Some organizations aim to uplift professionals from ethnic minorities group in the book industry, for instance, We Need Diverse Books, Latinx Publishing or Literary Agents of Color. The lack of representation is also found in children’s magazines.
Compensating for the lack of diversity in youth magazines
Youth magazines are not inclusive enough. However, initiatives are being taken to address this lack of representation. Estrella also works with Rabbel Magazine. It is a magazine that was founded by Julie Comfort and her daughter Tully Comfort. It is a matter of putting girls and women from all over the world forward, through their stories, by giving a more contemporary and realistic representation. Julie and Estrella want to share stories that reflect the endless capacity that women and girls have, overcoming their fears to find and express the unique talents they bring to the world.
Diversity is gradually increasing in children’s literature contrary to magazines. Progress is being made, particularly in bookstores, which are seeking to have more diverse books. According to the School Library Journal,” librarians are buying more diverse books—two-thirds of the sample, 68 percent of survey respondents, report purchasing an increased number of children’s/YA (young adult) titles with diverse characters in the last year. ”
However, it is still difficult to find books whose protagonists are children with disabilities, who are Amerindians or who are learning English. There are many people working in publishing houses, who are booksellers or writers, who are fighting for more diversity in children’s literature and magazines, and there is no doubt that we are on the right track. “However, the media and literature children are exposed to needs to be more central to the heated conversations adults are having about making a change in the world.
The topics of conversation central to adults in the quest to improve humanity and the world are progressing, but the world of children is simply being left behind. These are ears and hearts that matter and are the most impactable and powerful for the future,” according to Estrella.
Authors of colors and children’s books with people of color
If you are some children’s books with protagonists of color or authors of color, check the list out:
- 25 Children’s Books That Celebrate Differences
- 17 New Authors of Color Writing Much-Needed Stories for Kids
- #Ownvoices: Kids and Teen Books by Indigenous Authors and Illustrators
- 13 Books for Kids that Celebrate All Things Asian
- 6 BEST LATINO CHILDREN’S BOOKS OF 2018
Kathy Ishizuka. Can Diverse Books Save Us? In a divided world, librarians are on a mission. Oct 21 2018.
Christinia M-Tschida, Caitlin L.Ryan & Anne Swenson Ticknor. Building on Windows and Mirrors: Encouraging the Disruption of Single Stories Through Children’s Literature. Jan 2014.
Vincent Schilling.The True Story of Pocahontas: Historical Myths Versus Sad Reality. Sep 8 2017.
Laura Atkins. What’s the Story? Issues of Diversity and Children’s Publishing in the U.K. Nov 11 2013.