Racial diversity in children’s books grows, but slowly

Christine Fernando

CHICAGO (AP) — In the world of children’s books, villagers can protect their water from a black snake, dark skin is as beautiful as the night sky, and a little girl’s two puffs of hair can make her feel like she’s floating above the clouds.

Kids are seeing more of these possibilities in the books they read as authors make a bigger push to reflect the diversity around them. Racial diversity in children’s books has been picking up since 2014, reversing a 25-year plateau, according to Director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center Kathleen T Horning.

But despite the gains, progress has been slow. Children’s books written by authors of colour in 2020 increased by three per cent to 26.8 per cent compared with 2019. Children’s books written about racially diverse characters or subjects, however, grew by only one per cent to 30 per cent, according to preliminary data provided to The Associated Press by the CCBC, which has been tracking statistics on children’s book representation since 1985.

Meanwhile, books about Latino characters saw a slight decrease in 2020, from 6.3 per cent to 6.2 per cent, while the number of books both by and about Native people stayed flat, Horning said. Books both by and about Black and Asian people saw small but steady increases.

Horning noted that it can take years for a children’s book to be written, illustrated and published, so whatever progress was made in 2020 may not be apparent until 2022 or 2023.

Still, Horning would like to see more people of colour writing about their own communities.

ABOVE & BELOW: Illustrator of A Girl Like Me Nina Crews reads to children at an early childhood education centre; and Author Angela Joy poses with her 2020 book Black is a Rainbow Color in Long Beach, California. PHOTOS: AP

“We want people to feel empowered to tell their own stories,” she said.

Chief Executive Officer of the grassroots advocacy non-profit We Need Diverse Books Ellen Oh said one barrier to achieving diversity in children’s books is the myth within the publishing industry that books about people of colour don’t sell.

“Because of this myth, publishing never gives these books a chance,” Oh said.

In reality, books written by and about people of colour have made it on the New York Times’ bestsellers’ list, including Hair Love by Matthew A Cherry, Sulwe by Lupita Nyong’o and We Are Water Protectors by

Carole Lindstrom. When George Floyd was killed in police custody last year, kindergarten teacher Brittany Smith in New Jersey wanted to help students and teachers make sense of what happened so she made a reading list of anti-racist books for children.

Soon after, the list went viral on Twitter and many of the books sold out at major bookstores. Teachers and school districts incorporated them into curriculums and libraries.

Smith said finding books with diversity for her students requires extra digging and sometimes she feels limited in her choices. She hopes 2020 changed that.

“Last year showed us there is a need and want for these books,” she said. “I just hope this doesn’t stop.”

Author of the 2020 book Black Is a Rainbow Color Angela Joy said that as people of colour become conditioned to only see white people as deserving of being in books, they may start to internalise that, further discouraging them from feeling comfortable representing their own communities. When her own daughter writes, Joy said she pictures white people rather than characters who look like her.

“It breaks my heart,” she said. “I want my child to see that she is worthy of being in the stories she reads and writes.”