In 2013, 2% of children’s literature books that were published featured an African American character. TWO!
Wait! What are you talking about?
This week I read some articles about the lack of diversity in young adult and children’s literature. I learned some really shocking things. The most obvious one is the extreme disparity in books that feature characters different from the majority population. I’m talking about books that feature strong, intelligent people from all walks of life, all skin colors, all gender identities, all beliefs. The statistic above is that 93 of 3,200 books published in 2013 for children and teens featured a character of African American descent. Yikes!
Why is this happening?
That is the subject of numerous opinion pieces and articles. Christopher Myers says it beautifully in this op-ed from the NY Times. “The closest I can get to the orchestrator of the plot – my villain with his ferret – is The Market.” Meyers is arguing that publishers and editors say no to books by and featuring characters with differences because no one would buy them or there is no market for this. Really publishing industry? Really?
Zetta Elliott, author of books for children, teens, and adults, brings the issue to the bare bones. She writes,
What I am trying to say to children’s publishers is that the lack of books for children in our communities IS A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH. I am not asking you to level the playing field as a “favor” to people of color. I am asking you to work with us in our efforts to transform children’s lives.
It is imperative that all students can see themselves in the books they read. It is essential that they learn about others who are different in the books they read.
Walter Dean Myers wrote about books and diversity. He writes, “Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity.” This is the crux of it for me. When we read and share books with students, we are also sharing a snapshot of our values as a culture and society. Our society doesn’t look like the ones in most YA and Children’s lit books.
So what can we do about it?
I think the first thing we can do is to realize that there is more we can do! Again, Walter Dean Myers is a simple and effective voice. “There is more to be done.” We as readers and educators need to do more to get books about all types of people into our students’ hands.
We can get these works in our students hands by buying them ourselves, reading them, book talking them, sharing them with students. As teachers we have an obligation to show our students the truth of the world and inspire them to change it for the better. If we don’t read these books, we can’t book talk them honestly or recommend them honestly. It is our duty as teachers to do this.
I have been fortunate enough to grow up in an area where being different was expected. I looked like some of my friends, and looked like the opposite of others. We had different beliefs, customs, colors of our skin. I never knew the world to be any different from that – I thought everyone lived this way.
And yet, I live in a place now that this is not a reality for our community. We are not a very diverse community. I believe that is why it is especially important for me to put books into my students’ hands that reflect the world I know is outside our town. I need to be sure to read diversely, book talk diversely, recommend diversely.
I hope that the books in my classroom library will represent the beautiful mosaic of our world. I hope my students can see the beautiful picture made up of different sized, different colored, different textured pieces. Maybe they won’t see the beautiful picture. But maybe, just maybe, they will get a glimpse of that different colored tile – an experience different from theirs – and they will be able to honor and respect it.
Why do you read diversely? What makes a diverse library? Let’s talk below…