It’s time for a short but important digression from our regularly scheduled mocking. I’m here today to talk to you about diversity in children’s literature and publishing, and to promote this idea:
In 2014, the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign was formed to create dialogue and action around the pervasive and endemic dearth of diversity in the children’s book publishing industry. In the short time since its inception, #WeNeedDiverseBooks has accomplished an enormous amount. Most importantly, they have spearheaded noticeable, significant change in publishing trends, book convention panels, and many of the recent major children’s book award winners. Today the organization hands out awards and grants, provides author and illustrator mentorships, holds writing symposiums, assembles roundtable forums, creates resources and booklists, mobilizes awareness and publicity campaigns, and champions issues of diversity in children’s literature and publishing across multiple digital forums.
The statistics on children’s book publishing and diversity, as I’m sure you’ve heard, aren’t very pretty. Annual reports on diversity in children’s publishing from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center display dismal trends and scant improvement over the last decade when considering books by and about African/African Americans, American Indians/First Nations, Asian Pacifics/Asian Pacific Americans, and Latinos. Of the 3400 books received by the CCBC in 2015, only 10.6% of them were by and 14.8% were about people of color and First/Native Nations. To make matters worse, many characters in children’s books are animals, rather than people, knocking the number of reflective images kids see in books down another notch. Kathleen Horning, director of the CCBC, informally estimates that in any given year, less than 10% of picture book protagonists are people of color.
With a vision of a world where all children can see themselves in the pages of a book and a mission to put more books featuring diverse characters into the hands of all children, #WeNeedDiverseBooks has outlined 7 essential benefits to reading diverse books. These are benefits shared by children of color and white children alike.
- They reflect the world and people of the world
- They teach respect for all cultural groups
- They serve as a window and a mirror and as an example of how to interact in the world
- They show that despite differences, all people share common feelings and aspirations
- They can create a wider curiosity for the world
- They prepare children for the real world
- They enrich educational experiences (Source here)
So where do traditional (and nontraditional) beginning readers fit in to all of this? They certainly aren’t the darlings of the children’s publishing industry, and they usually aren’t the flashiest kids on the block. They only got their own award 10 years ago. And yet, while they are but a short part of a child’s lifelong reading diet, they serve a vital purpose. As Kathleen Horning (her again, that smart lady!) says in Cover to Cover, her seminal guide to children’s literature, “It is during this stage that the child gains confidence and discovers that reading is personally important and pleasurable” (2010, p 132). Thus, if we want the social and educational benefits of diversity in children’s literature to become a foundational element of children’s experiences of reading as enjoyable and worthwhile, we need high quality books written specifically for children who learning to read… #WeNeedDiverseBeginningReaders!
With all of this in mind, here is a small starting point, with some suggestions for read-alikes that pair Geisel award-winning titles with high-quality, culturally diverse beginning readers.