ChildReading

Ethnic diversity is on the rise in the U.S. So why are children’s books still so white? Only about 6 percent of kids’ books published in 2013 feature characters that are African-American, Latino, Asian or Native American. We take up the discussion with authors, illustrators and librarians. Does the ethnicity of characters in children’s books matter to you?

Guests' Recommendations for Books Featuring People of Color

Nina Lindsay's Picks:

Rain by Linda Ashman, with illustrations by Christian Robinson

Niño Wrestles the World by Yuyi Morales

The Thing About Luck Cynthia Kadohata

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

Honey I Love by Eloise Greenfield

Chickadee by  Louise Erdrich

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

 

Mitali Perkin's Picks:

More, More, More, Said the Baby: Three Love Stories by Vera B. Williams (picture book)

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis (middle grades)

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (Young Adult)

 

LeUyen Pham's List:

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, illustrated by Ellen Forney

Peter's Chair by Ezra Jack Keats

Guests:
Kathleen Horning, director of the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's School of Education
Mitali Perkins, author of "Rickshaw Girl," "Monsoon Summer" and "The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen"
LeUyen Pham, illustrator of children's books including "Grace for President," "Freckleface Strawberry" and "Alvin Ho: Allergic to Camping, Hiking, and Other Natural Disasters"
Nina Lindsay, supervising librarian for children's services at the Oakland Public Library, former judge on the Newbery Award selection committee
Christopher Myers, illustrator of children's books including "Harlem" and "Black Cat"

  • Claudia Pearson

    Why is there not more overlap between the Newbery Awards and Honor books and the books honored by other award processes that are limited to books by POC like the CSK awards?

  • Claudia Pearson

    Why don’t librarians buy and promote the winners of other awards to ALL readers like the do the Newbery and Caldecott awards, or do they? (And I don’t mean during specific months but year round).

  • Mark Shoffner

    This is a timely show! I’m an author, and white, but have written a series of children’s books about a Japanese-American boy named Haruki. As authors we are supposed to be good at reaching out with our imaginations, and this should include imagining the lives of characters that are different than us, in addition to encouraging writers from underrepresented groups/ viewpoints to share their stories. Can’t wait to hear the show. (Mark Shoffner, author of Haruki and the Laughing Cats)

  • If people of color want more children’s books featuring “their” children, they should publish them. Publishing houses are no longer the gatekeepers of what gets published. An independent author can hire a graphic designer at an affordable price to lay out a children’s book in a format that can be uploaded to Amazon for Kindle, to Google Play Books for Android and to Itunes Books for IPad. The cost of uploading the books to those platforms is zero. Yes, it is hard work to promote a book on social media and in parenting forums and in librarian forums once it is digitally published. But it is no harder than sending the manuscript out to countless publishers and enduring the heartache of countless rejections.

    • Claudia Pearson

      but those books do not get into the libraries and schools or get nominated for awards. Self publishing is still a limited option.

      • 50 Shades Of Grey, which is a crappy book, started out as a self published series. So if there are QUALITY children’s books gaining readers in the digital publishing world, the traditional publishing houses will notice.

        • Claudia Pearson

          Erotic romance is different from children’s books. And that is only one of the hundreds of thousands of self published books. I’m not saying that self-pubbed books can’t sell, just that they don’t get stocked in bookstores (a whole other issue related to why there aren’t more published) or reviewed or bought in libraries and schools or by the readers, who are children and not typically able to buy books online.

  • Virginia C

    It is time for publishers to recognize that stories by, about and involving people of color is necessary for the written media to keep up with other media. Disney has. The disney cable channel has shows that star children from various ethnic backgrounds in many scenarios, not just the stereotypical ones done in several major networks.
    Children don’t see the color differences, it is learned.

  • Ann Maxwell

    An author should “hold back” from writing African American and Native American characters if s/he isn’t African American or Native American? I disagree with your guest. No author should make a concerted effort to do that. We live in a multicultural world! ALL authors need to reflect the world in which we live. An author has a responsibility to write as authentically as s/he can when writing about a culture other than her/his own, but should never purposefully avoid it. If an African Americans only writes books with African American characters and White Americans only write books with White characters, etc. children’s books will be false and very, very boring.

    • Matthew S

      I would question the statement about being boring or false. There is something that cannot be named or defined when people tell stories from their own experience and it is a beautiful thing. Something so deep in each of us that the way we put words together, how we talk, everything is affected by our experience and how we grew up. This is why first-voice books, books written by authors from the culture they are representing are so important. It’s a deeper connection, one that transcends the words and images, and one that children from those cultures need to see and more importantly feel as they read the books. And beyond that to read a book and see “hey this book was written and/or illustrated by someone who looks just like me”…that is a powerful thing for a child. I would question whether white authors should step back and let people of color tell their own stories. This is one way that white people can begin to recognize and address their inherent privilege in the current publishing system. This is not to say that people shouldn’t have diverse characters in their stories, that would be false since we live in a diverse world and we come into contact with a lot of different people so of course characters in books should do the same. But, writing a story where the author is white and is writing the experience of a child of color, that is one that I would question. There are things about that child’s experience that the author can never know no matter how much they study, no matter how much research is done, because they are white and have privilege in this world that has affected everything about their experience, privilege that that child does not have. This is the basis of beginning to understand white privilege. If there is a lack of diversity in children’s books and only so many children’s books about people of color are getting published right now, are white authors taking up space writing stories about people of color that would be better taken by people of color writing those stories themselves? I don’t know the answer, but as a white person, I do wonder. And that’s not to say that we don’t need even MORE stories b/c the current percentages are dreadful, but I wonder if letting more people tell their own stories instead of telling them for them would be a start?

  • Steven Paradise

    I’m really enjoying this discussion. I have an idea in my head for a book (not a children’s book) that at its core requires a racially diverse cast. But I feel pretty intimidated by the idea of trying to write such a cast, and figuring out how to make them reflect their cultures without accidentally being stereotypical or racially insensitive. Any suggestions?

    • Maybe by simply reading other work in the genre you’re interested in to get a feel for how it’s done?

  • I also want to point out that the missing people of color in “children’s” books really depends on what you mean by the words “books” and “children”. My boyfriend was born in 1964. He has a lot of comic books that he started collecting at age 7. People of color ARE represented in these epic comic book stories. I will say that the comic book, back when my boyfriend was 7, were more for boys than girls. But still, non-whites were represented. Comic books are also the publishing place where disabled people first got to be super heroes and gays and lesbians first got to be portrayed as a normal, everyday, person or a main character.

  • T Wright

    Equal Read is a nonprofit organization recently founded to increase diversity in children’s literature, in the market and in classrooms. In the planning stages, we are piloting a program to make it easier for buyers to recognize outstanding books of this kind- great stories that offer non-token diversity of all kinds; another program to make classroom book collections representative of their learners and the diversity of our society; and, with the help of Jacqueline Woodson & Laurie Halse Anderson, building a cadre of outstanding authors to mentor and help fuel the pipeline of authors committed to writing excellent diverse books. We welcome ideas and involvement and encourage those interested on this work to contact us at equalread@gmail.com
    Thank you, Taun Wright, Founder Equal Read

  • Donna Bellorado

    Good Morning. I am a screen writer, not of children’s stories but stories of multicultural lives across all genres, family stories included. Stories with strong women protagonists living lives with friends and families who are mixed, interfacing in a world that is mixed. I have awards for my scripts yet still no takers and I am , as your panel, frustrated in a world where when characters are not described by race they are assumed to be white and when characters are described by race or culture the script is pigeon holed to a catagory that is ‘not mainstream’. Write on–new days are coming! Stories like Olivia Hamer who is an African American, 30 something who gets venture capital for her company Girl Games Inc, a video game start up! Olivia takes to the road with her Latina, Chinese, and white peers on a trip to their high school reunion which becomes her block buster game.

  • MJ Moey

    This discussion is so important for our children. How can we give them a healthy environment growing up with a good self-esteem? I can’t agree with you more.
    We make an effort to read books about other cultures. We borrow from our local libraries or shop on-line from other countries to get Chinese kids stories. One that I can recall written by a non Indian but it was about an Indian boy it’s call “BABAJI”. My son loves it because it’s funny and well drawn. Anyhow, too often most of these kinds of books that we can find from the states about other races are too often stereotype still. Please, please have more fun books for kids of colors.

  • Stephanie @InCultureParent

    Fantastic discussion that I am so happy to see here and in the NY Times last week. We review multicultural children’s books regularly as we are very passionate about this topic. We just published today (how timely!) a multicultural picture book reading list for each month of 2014. Hope everyone enjoys it. http://www.incultureparent.com/2014/03/a-year-of-multicultural-picture-books-for-the-global-child/

  • debreese

    Dear Authors and Illustrators: I know you love your work and the imagination that goes into your work, but I have an important request. If you’re going to write about American Indians, please take those romantic and tragic Indian figures out of your head. Get rid of the primitive ones, too. You grew up in a society that is inundated with images that obscure who we are! There are over 500 federally recognized Native Nations all across the U.S. Obviously, we don’t speak a single language, and we don’t use the same kinds of material artifacts (present or in the past). If you’re going to write about us, please visit my site and read my critiques of the ways that well-meaning writers and illustrators portray American Indians. Don’t make their mistakes. My site is American Indians in Children’s Literature: http://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.net

  • debreese

    Dear Parents and Librarians: I know a lot of you love American Indians, but I have a request. Before you buy a book that purports to be about American Indians, visit my site. Read critiques there of the ways that well-meaning authors and illustrators have depicted American Indians. We’re not heroes, and we’re not figures of the past, either. We’re people of sovereign nations (think TREATY rights, not civil rights). Our nations are all across the country. We speak different languages and the tribally-specific items we use differ from one end of the country to the other. Far too much of what you’ll find in a bookstore or catalog about American Indians is flawed. Be an informed consumer! Here’s my site: American Indians in Children’s Literature, http://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.net

    I’ve written for School Library Journal, and Horn Book, and Language Arts, and Indian Country Today… I’m a former professor in American Indian Studies, and a former school teacher.

  • Robert Trujillo

    Its great to hear such great guests speak whom I am fans of. Good show, I would like to see the show expanded into covering publishers big and small who produce multicultural kids bks.

  • Kurt thialfad

    What is a person of color? Can anyone provide a definition? I recall a term ‘colored person’, as in NAACP, which referred to descendants of African slaves, but I suspect ‘person of color’ means something completely different. I suspect the term refers to everybody.

    • frumpus

      Anyone who isn’t white

  • Cheryl Willis Hudson

    Is there an archive of this discussion? If so, please share. I’m sorry I missed the live action. Thanks!

  • Kelan O’Connell

    As a Bay Area author who has been on the front lines of this issue for some time, I feel it’s important to address the Catch 22 dilemma facing many authors whose books feature main characters of color.

    I am the author of the YA Urban Fantasy Adventure, Delta Legend. When I first queried agents with this work, only two had the guts to say what I suspected: while they felt the writing/story was compelling, they didn’t believe they could sell an Urban Fantasy with an African American male protagonist when Dystopian stories featuring white females were dominating the market.

    After enough rejections, I independently published Delta Legend. But here’s the rub: Many bookstores and libraries will not carry indie books like mine because they are not available through Baker Taylor (the primary old-school traditional company that book sellers and libraries obtain books through). The Oakland Public Library is one such institution.

    So here’s a 4 and 5 star reviewed YA Urban Fantasy Adventure featuring an Oakland teen as the protagonist, yet you won’t find it on the shelves of the Oakland Public Library. Why? Because it’s not sold through Baker Taylor. And why is not available through Baker Taylor? Because no one in traditional publishing would take a chance on it.

    Being self-published and doing it right (i.e. using a professional editor and graphic artist) is extremely hard work. I’m a one-woman marketing team in addition to my regular job. But I felt this story had value and deserved to be told.

    Thank you Christopher Myers for speaking the words, “We need to make an adjustment in the system.” A few folks are doing just that. Contra Costa County Library Acquisitions Director, Elliot Warren, bought copies of my book from Amazon that I matched with donated copies. It is now in several branches. Independent bookstore owner, Janet Boreta, has given Delta Legend precious shelf space in her store, Orinda Books, that I stock.

    I feel the tide is turning, but many of us are still caught in the riptide between tradition and independent publishing. Traditional publishers are getting the message, however, thanks to continued pressure and informative programs like this one. As usual, the comments here are intelligent and thought-provoking.

  • stacylwhitman

    I loved this show! The panelists are all experts in their fields, and KT Horning’s introduction helped set up some of the dilemmas we face, such as not being able to find diverse reads. However, I wish you’d had more time to point to where parents, teachers, and readers CAN find more diverse books, beyond the lists provided by the panelists. People need tools to go beyond the few titles everyone always names (Absolutely True Diary, for example, is already a bestseller; where can people find more books like it, if they loved that book and want to read more?)

    As the panel noted, often people of color are the protagonists only of historical fiction when it comes to novels for young readers. While reading about slavery and the civil rights movement is important, children also need to see POC characters being the heroes in adventurous, magical stories, too. I am the publisher of Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low Books, and we focus on diversity in science fiction and fantasy for children and young adults.

    In our company blog, we recently put together a list of resources people can consult to find diverse reads. We made four lists–publishers that publish diverse books, blogs that recommend diverse reads (from picture books through YA), awards that focus on diversity, and bookstores where people can purchase those diverse reads. I hope it can be of help to people who aren’t sure where to go to find these books.

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