“Why are they always white children?”
That question, posed by a 5-year-old African-American girl in 1965, begins Nancy Larrick’s famous “The All-White World of Children’s Books.” In it, she documents the lily-white landscape of children’s literature. At that time, just 0.8 percent of the children’s books told contemporary stories about African-Americans.
Today, things aren’t much better. The market is still dominated by white authors and publishers. And content has changed little, too.
In 2012, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center reviewed 3,600 children’s books. Only three percent were about African-Americans. Asian and Pacific Americans were featured in two percent, followed by Latinos with less than two percent, and American Indians at less than one percent.
“The Open Book” asked academics, authors, librarians, educators and reviewers to weigh in on why this is the case. One problem is that multicultural books and authors are not seen as profitable so they aren’t published. When a diverse book does squeak through, it’s shelved in the back of book stores.
Publishing houses also have very white staffs, as do book review sections. And often, teachers don’t have the resources or the knowledge to recommend books that match the experiences of their students.
This is a problem. As Noah Berlantsky wrote in the Atlantic:
Half of all five-year-olds in the country belong to a racial or ethnic minority, yet white kids continue to hold center stage in most children’s books and young-adult fiction. As a result, large numbers of kids don’t see themselves reflected in the books they read, and non-white, or non-heterosexual, or even non-male children end up learning that they are marginal, or secondary, in their society.
For the last three years, I’ve taught a course at the University of Texas at Austin called Young Adult: Fiction and Film. The theory-based course encourages students to see favorite stories and authors from their childhood in a new light, while at the same time introducing them to new authors.
There is reason for hope.
This year, Jacqueline Woodson’s poetry memoir “Brown Girl Dreaming” won the National Book Award for children’s literature. She is the fifth person of color to win the award since it was renamed in 1996.The book documents the adversity her family faced spanning from slavery to the Civil Rights Movement up to the 1970s, and has won rave reviews.
Presently, independent publishers such as Lee & Low Books, ArtePublico Press’ Piñata Imprint, and Just Us Books, along with countless others, are largely responsible for the diversity in the children’s and YA book markets, a fact that is unlikely to change until mainstream publishing houses are economically motivated to acquire and promote works by authors of color.
Each year, I teach a class on children’s literature. The required reading list for this year included “Harry Potter,” “The Princess Diaries,” “The Hunger Games” and “Maze Runner,” all of which have enjoyed widespread popularity and been adapted into film. It also included Sherman Alexie’s “Flight,” about a time-traveling, mixed-blooded Indian orphan teen, and Carla Trujillo’s “What Night Brings,” told by a young Mexican American girl who grows up in an abusive household and longs to become a boy.
Noticeably absent were “Divergent,” “The Giver,” “Perks of Being a Wall Flower,” “Twilight” and anything by John Green.
At the end of each semester, students ask me for a reading list of recommended books. This year, students recommended some to me, as well. Here are some of my favorite diverse reads:
“The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie
“Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
“Does My Head Look Big In This?” by Randa Abdel-Fattah
“Esperanza Rising” by Pam Munoz Ryan
“Great Call of China” by Cynthea Liu
“Home of the Brave” by Katherine Applegate
“Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass” by Meg Medina
What was true almost 50 years ago is still true today. We still need greater diversity in children’s and young adult fiction. But of greater importance, we need people to buy and read them.