Have you seen stats about the diversity gap in children’s books? They caught my attention while illustrating my new picture book featuring multicultural children – I Want Cake!
Because the kids are part of my nuclear family, I didn’t give much thought to cultural identity issues, but focused on creating a fun story that could be enjoyed by all children and families. As the illustrator, I also wanted to depict real children just being themselves. But I couldn’t ignore emerging data about the diversity problem in children’s books. And I began to see the stats everywhere—from small book blogs to mainstream media.
Part I: The Problem
Lack of diversity in children’s books hasn’t changed in over 20 years, even while U.S. minorities younger than 18 are projected to outnumber white children by 2019.
Show Me the Facts
The Cooperative Children’s Book Council (CCBC) — the authoritative source about diversity in children’s books — studied diversity content data every year since 1989.
Adding together human and nonhuman characters, children of color make up just 7.8% of the total number of picture book protagonists in 2013.
For the full year of 2013, the CCBC received approximately 3,200 books total. Of those:
- “93 books had significant African or African American content;
67 books were by Black authors and/or illustrators
- 34 books had American Indian themes, topics, or characters;
18 books were by American Indian authors and/or illustrators
- 61 books had significant Asian/Pacific or Asian/Pacific American content;
88 books were by authors and/or illustrators of Asian/Pacific heritage
- 57 books had significant Latino content;
48 books were by Latino authors and/or illustrators.”
CCBC’s study generated a burst of media attention in early 2014, including the New York Times article, “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” by noted children’s book author Walter Dean Myers:
“Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?
Study findings contrasted sharply with U.S. Census data revealing that the nation’s white population fell to historic lows in 2010:
Almost half, 49.9 percent, of the nation’s children younger than 5 were minorities as of July 1, 2010. And the total minority population grew 21 times faster than whites.
The lack-of-diversity phenomenon became a personal wake-up call as I continued work on I Want Cake! But I didn’t make a serious connection between the data and my book publishing worldview until I had to select a BISAC (Book Industry Standards and Communications) “subject descriptor” category. Juvenile Fiction was easy. But there is no category for Diversity.
So I dove deeper into the growing number of organizations, blogs and efforts dedicated to raising awareness about the diversity gap. The collective passion about this issue seems to cluster around a core set of ideas, insights and facts. These represent my own understanding of the issues and are not in any way intended to prioritize one issue over another. For me, they are equally relevant and important:
- There is no single definition of “multicultural literature” relating to books for children and young adults. The CCBC uses multicultural to mean books by and about people of color.
- “Diversity” in library collections and programs refers to cultural diversity. Culture includes shared characteristics that define how a person lives, thinks, and creates meaning. These characteristics include customs, traditions, rituals, food, dress, and language. Typically people from the same cultural group share similar characteristics.
- The language for describing diversity is important – and controversial. I found an interesting distinction between “casual” and “intentional” diversity. For example, “Casual diversity can be seen in books where diversity is integrated into the storyline without a hitch. Put another way, these are books where the point of the story isn’t diversity, but just a natural outgrowth of it.” (Elizabeth Bird. School Library Journal. “Casual Diversity” and the children’s book February 4, 2014)
- The number of books containing multicultural themes hasn’t changed since 1994. (Lee & Low Books: Diversity Gap in Children’s Books Infographic 2015)
- Creators of color are heavily underrepresented in children’s books. “In every category except Latino, more books are being published about characters from a particular culture by someone who is not from that culture than by someone who is.” Lee & Low Books. The Diversity Gap in Children’s Publishing, 2015. Hannah Ehrlich. March, 2015
- In 2014, there were 393 books published about people of color. Of these, 225 (57%) were by people who were not from the culture about which they wrote or which they illustrated. Lee & Low Books. The Diversity Gap in Children’s Publishing, 2015. Hannah Ehrlich. March, 2015
- Positive representations of diversity in children’s books facilitate acceptance of cultures different from one’s own and fosters global connections. Introducing culturally diverse children to characters with similar experiences and emotions reinforces a distinct cultural identity. (Association for Library Service to Children. Jamie Campbell Naidoo. April 2014)
- Nonwhite parents are about three times more likely to discuss race than white parents. “75% of white parents never, or almost never, talk about race.” (School Library Journal, 2014)
The gap between demographic reality and diversity in children’s books is huge and not changing. While exploring the facts, I discovered many organizations and individuals taking the lead in making a difference; for example, Multicultural Children’s Book Day. I write about these in Part II!
Have you experienced the lack of diversity issue as an author, illustrator, publisher, parent, teacher and/or librarian?