Wednesday, March 19, 2014

#ColorMyShelf - Diverse Books for All Kids

Author Walter Dean Myers wrote an article, Where Are The People of Color in Children's Books? in the New York Times about the lack of diversity in children's books. This isn't new news, as I posted about this last year, with a chart from First Book, illustrating that 93% of the children's books published in 2012 featured White children; all other racial categories accounted for the remaining 7%.  In 2013, The Cooperative Children's Book Center counted less than 300 books about children of color of the 3200 they reviewed (with an estimated 5000 books actually published).

Myers' article, however, did spawn a new Twitter hashtag #ColorMyShelf.  If you scroll through, you'll find mentions of books featuring children of various races and cultures, as well as the call for more diverse books.

And you'll find, if you haven't noticed already, that many "multicultural" books are for younger kids - pre-school up to elementary age. Many explain a particular culture - about "nappy" hair or how to use chopsticks or a grandmother's kimono or how to light candles for divali.  Many of the African-American books, for example, are about historical figures, African-American culture post-slavery, or retellings of African folktales. We have several of them on our family bookshelf.

There are few, however, where the kids are going about their own little kid business - falling into rabbit holes or eating fried insects or pestering their little brothers - and just happen to be African-American or Chinese or Mexican.  It's as if the subtle message is "children of color are people for little kids to learn about, they don't lead normal lives."

Books for older readers seem to have even less diverse characters. My high-school daughter reads a lot.  By a lot, I mean she wanders through the library and bookstore, picks up five books at a time and will read them, barring a Physics exam, within the week.  Books about kids who turn into birds, kids with crazy scientists chasing them, mean girls, kids dying of cancer - all of that, in addition to her school assigned reading.  I've asked her how many have Black characters. She laughs as she reports that none of them do.  Well, accept Rue and Thresh and their neighbors from the Hunger Games.

Remember the surprise/shock/outrage when Rue was cast as Black (as described in the book)?  On one side of the aisle, folks fumed about this Black character who dared to show up and not be there to teach us about how to take care of curly hair?  On the other side, folks cheered that there on the big screen was a cute Black girl who wasn't poppin' gum with her hands on her hip carrying a baby.  There didn't seem as much outrage that Thresh was also Black; maybe people expected that or didn't mind the fighting boy to be Black.  (We won't even get into why the people of Rue and Thresh's District were picking cotton, we'll save that for another day.)  And then what was the next book with a regular kid who just happened to not be White?  .... Right.

So, what? Why does it matter? It matters because as much as reading is about falling into another world, time, life, story, it's also nice to encounter a diversity of characters, just like in real life. For children of color, it's an affirmation to see children like themselves doing normal kid stuff, not only running away from slavery or helping a grandmother cook a family recipe handed down through generations.  For White children, it's a statement that these other kids do normal stuff, too, not just celebrate special holidays and show off their cultural costumes. Diversity in books emphasizes the commonalities of all people and teaches us that we all want the same things - love, friendship, family, security, happiness.

Then, what? How do we get more books with children of color?  Well, someone has to write them.  Good books that kids will enjoy reading, about kids doing kid-stuff.  And other people have to support these writers by buying their books for their children and sharing them with their friends.  We have to post and tweet about books as much as we do about the Real Housewives and celebrity "news." We have to make reading entertaining and not-nerdy.  Simple, right?

I've reviewed on this blog a few books about children of color doing normal stuff.
Take a look and share them with your kids. And share any other recommendations in the comments below.

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1 comment:

Ty Allan Jackson said...

Great post! You're dead-on