Browsing the shelves of the children’s section at bookstores can be a depressing experience for the parent of an interracial youngster. I’m a mutt mixture Caucasian with roots going back to Western Europe and beyond, while my wife is from Ghana. We are constantly on the lookout for stories featuring characters with whom our interracial son can visually identify. It would just be nice for him to pick up a book and think to himself, “Hey, that little guy looks like me.” Sadly, he doesn’t get to do that very often.
Though there is a growing number of racially diverse characters popping up on picture book pages – and the passionate social media campaign #WeNeedDiverseBooks hopes to inspire even more of them – there is a depressing dearth of interracial ones. This is somewhat surprising given how many families are interracial these days. According to the United States Census Bureau, “interracial or interethnic opposite-sex married couple households grew by 28 percent over the decade from 7 percent in 2000 to 10 percent in 2010.” Additionally, there were 275,500 interracial marriages in 2010 out of a total of 2,096,000. Heck, there’s even a TV show about an interracial family and it’s on a major network – ABC’s “The Fosters.”
This isn’t to say that there aren’t any children’s books starring interracial characters. There are some wonderful options, including “Black, White, Just Right!” by Marguerite W. Davol and illustrated by Irene Trivas, “Black is Brown is Tan” by Arnold Adoff with illustrations by Emily Arnold McCully and Phil Mandelbaum’s “You Be Me, I’ll Be You.” A current favorite is “The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage,” which chronicles the 1967 Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, in which a biracial couple successfully challenged the state’s law against interracial marriage.
The book’s creators are also a biracial couple: writer/illustrator Selina Alko, a white Canadian Jew, and her husband, illustrator Sean Qualls, an African American. “The Loving’s story struck a chord with us,” says Alko, “so it became our challenge to turn this complicated case into a more simplified children’s tale.”
Trying to find further options for our son has proven to be tricky, but there are some helpful resources online. Part of Chicago-based non-profit Brown Baby Reads’ mission is to increase access to books featuring diverse characters. The organization has drawn up a list of more than a dozen children’s books featuring interracial families and children, though there’s an even more extensive Goodreads list featuring more than 70 titles.
Examining these compendiums reveals a larger issue with almost all of the books featuring interracial characters: the primary objective of the narrative is to address the their interraciality. “Right now, they’re more about affirming identity and image,” says Dawn Eddy, director of Brown Baby Reads. “Or they’re about normalizing relationships with parents or grandparents.”
A notable exception is John Rocco’s Caldecott winning “Blackout,” which follows a family who bond during a blackout in New York City. They happen to be a multi-racial family, but it’s not a focus of the story.
However, this example is a glaring rarity. For the most part, if my son wants to read stories about characters who look like him, he’s only going to be reading about why they look the way they do. Kinda lame. If someone had given me a book called “You’re White and That’s Alright” or “The Boy with the Caucasian Persuasion” when I was younger, I can guarantee you that I would have thrown them under the bed and returned to my steady diet of stories starring knights, dragons, spacemen and aliens. You know, the stuff little boys actually love to read about.
“I’d like to see more where race is not even an item that needs to be addressed in the story,” says “The Case for Loving’s” illustrator Sean Qualls. “That’s just the way it is.”
There is some hope on the horizon. “Over time, there will more books that represent multiracial identity in a fuller way,” says Eddy, who has noticed a slight uptick in titles featuring such characters in the past six years or so. “You’ll start to see a lot more stories where identity is the secondary story. There is a need there. People are looking for these books.”
Yes, we are looking for them. And we are ready to support the writers, artists and publishers who create them, as well as the bookstores that sell them. We want to expose our children to books that reflect the world around them and make them feel a part of it. If there could be some dragons or aliens involved, I’m sure my son would love them even more.
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