By Ann Daniels

The world of children’s books is very beautiful. It’s also very white.

If you’re not working with kids, you might be surprised just how few children’s books look like the diverse world we live in. We could have a long discussion about the reasons, but the fact is that only a tiny proportion of children’s books feature kids of color in significant roles. The disconnect is truly stunning: compare these numbers from Alameda County’s 2013 public school enrollment with an analysis of the 3,200 children’s books received the same year by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at UW Madison:

Race/ethnic origin Percentage of Alameda County public school students in 2013 Percentage of books received in 2013 by CCBC-UWM that feature children of color in significant roles
African/African-American 12.8 2.9
Asian Pacific/Asian Pacific Americans 28.2 2.1
Hispanic/Latino 32.6 1.7

 

At the East Bay Children’s Book Project, we’ve given out over a million books to organizations serving children in need. We stock books infants through middle and high school students; mysteries, nonfiction, books about sports, biographies, poetry, manga, adventure, fantasy and science fiction: you name it. But good books featuring children of color — children who reflect the diversity of our home and our clients’ homes — are few and far between.

Of course, some books transcend identity. You don’t have to be white, or a girl, or live on a farm, to love Charlotte’s Web; you don’t have to be white, or a boy, to be excited at the adventures of Max in Where the Wild Things Are (or Harry Potter, for that matter). But if you’re a kid wandering in the world of imagination and you rarely if ever see anything that looks like you, it sends a wordless message that your story isn’t worth telling, that the dreams and adventures you see are not for you.

Noted children’s author and illustrator Christopher Myers calls it the “apartheid of literature — in which characters of color are limited to the townships of occasional historical books that concern themselves with the legacies of civil rights and slavery but are never given a pass card to traverse the lands of adventure, curiosity, imagination or personal growth.” And the converse is also true: if you only see books that show you people who look like you, you’re getting a wordless message that people who look different don’t get to be part of those adventures, those dreams – and that their stories aren’t worth telling.

As Nina Lindsay, Supervising Librarian for Children’s Services at the Oakland Public Library, says: “Kids read and respond to things they identify with, and things that are different, in books — helping them craft their identity by reflecting it, and expanding it. Kids also start to build prejudices from what they see in the world, and in books, from a very early age. What kinds of experiences are we denying children of all kinds by not showing them experiences of all kinds in their literature?” (emphasis in original).

The good news is that unlike many deep-rooted social problems, there are some simple things you can do to help:

  • If you have kids in your life, make an effort to expose them to books featuring all kinds of people.
  • Consider taking the Birthday Party Pledge: give multicultural books as gifts for a year or more.
  • Ask your local bookstore to stock books featuring children of color.
  • Donate books featuring children of color to the East Bay Children’s Book Project, so that we can get them to organizations serving children in need.

Not sure what books to get? The Oakland Public Library has lots of great recommendations online:

And because inclusion covers more than just different races and ethnic backgrounds:

Or you can ask your friendly local librarian!

News flash: The East Bay Children’s Book Project is moving!

The East Bay Children’s Book Project is excited to be moving to a new, larger space! Please come to 955 12th Street, Oakland, to help them move into their new home on July 12 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Editor’s Note: This piece reflects an individual opinion and is not a reported story from Oakland Local. Oakland Local invites community residents to share their views about events and issues in Oakland.
For guidelines, see: http://oaklandlocal.com/guidelines.
For more information on posting to community voices, see The word on Oakland Local’s Community Voices posts, http://bit.ly/1nsD19L.

2 Responses

  1. Meredith Spencer

    Good article. The link to African-American children’s books is disabled.

    Reply
  2. Robert Trujillo

    Nice article Oakland Local, check out this book. The book was funded using kickstarter and production is currently under way. http://bit.ly/FurqansFirst Would Oakland Local do a story about my book once it is printed? It is a bilingual book about a father and son relationship and a child’s first haircut.

    Reply

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