Think about your favorite book. Got it?
Now, envision the main (or your favorite) character in that book. See them?
Does that main character look like you in your mind’s eye? Is that character even human? What has influenced how you envision the character? Movies? Cover art? Illustrations?
This week I read a couple of articles on diversity in children’s literature that have me thinking. To be honest, the issue of (non)diversity in children’s books has not really crossed my mind too much. It isn’t for the reasons you probably think though.
I grew up as an Army brat. We moved 3 times (in my memory) – always to a different city with a different character. My parents’ final move to Colorado Springs was when I was 9. I spent my middle grades and high school years in the most diverse district in Colorado (at the time). My best friends were of all genders, races, ethnicities, cultures, and personalities. My brother’s friends were also of the same mixture of people.
As a kid, I didn’t know anything different from this. The fact that some people grew up and encountered only people who looked like them was a concept I didn’t learn until I was in COLLEGE. In my mind’s eye, all my favorite characters were like me, yet they lived in a world that also mirrored my world. A world filled with characters of all shapes and sizes – maybe even a Cowardly Lion or a Cat in a Hat or a Sam-I-Am (whatever he is!).
I learned a lot from the articles I read this week. I was surprised to learn that in the first half of 2013 only 124 (of 1,183 books about humans) featured a person of color. This is 2013 we are talking about! Only 10% of books featured someone who looked like my best friend, rather than someone who looked like me. That doesn’t seem fair that my best friend cannot live out the adventures of a main character who could be them. My limited experience has told me that the world is filled with people who are all different from one another. Yet, the children’s publishing world of 2013 did not reflect this.
I asked myself…..why? It seems that one of the biggest influences in which books publishers select is the big box book store market. Currently, the largest purchasers of books is these big book stores. The publishing industry is a business, and they will naturally publish books that their buyers will buy.
But even more shocking, is that these big book stores even influence cover art in the books they purchase! I thought that cover art, type-setting, and all the aesthetic decisions were left up to the authors/illustrators/editors. Apparently that isn’t the case though!
What can I do?
Enough facts. Let’s focus on a plan. How should we, as educators and librarians, approach the issue of diversity with our young readers? As teachers and librarians we need to read all the books – even the ones we do not personally like – so that we can make honest recommendations to our students.
We should recommend books to students based on interests and themes, rather than on how we envision the main characters. Everyone should be encouraged to read across the genres. We can also further this by choosing a wide variety of books for read-alouds and book talks.
During our book talks, we should do what Brian Pinkney has suggested. We should “Make It Personal”. We need to ask our students how they saw themselves in the characters, situations, and adventures they have read. How are they the same as the main character? How are they different? I don’t eat Green Eggs and Ham, but I want my friends to try my favorite food. I have a dog who seems to get into everything – but she is not a giant red dog!
The reading that we do, and the books we share with students, should reflect the wider world. We should talk honestly with students. We should ask them how they see the world. We should ask them what they want the world to be. Then, we should encourage them to explore the literary world.