Reading the Rainbow? Children’s Literature Industry Strives for Diversity

In 2018, how does using diverse children’s books factor into conversations with kids about race?

by Crystal Duan

Illustration by Grace Molteni

Youth librarian Natasha Forrester Campbell loved helping people find what they were looking for at the local library she worked at in Multnomah County, Oregon.

But in 12 years of working, she found certain questions stumped her again and again. Often, parents of non-white children would ask her: Where were the diverse children’s books? Where can I find the faces of kids who look like mine?

“People with different races or socioeconomic backgrounds would come to their local libraries for ways to teach their children about the world,” she says.

Often, she adds, they were disappointed by the selection. Children’s picture book offerings weren’t as diverse as the families frequenting the library. Requests for books with better representation from non-white and white parents for Oregon libraries have only increased since the election, she says. Now Forrester Campbell, in addition to professors and publishers around the country, is determined to find ways to meet this need.

Inclusive, Yet Not Tokenizing

In October,Forrester Campbell penned an article for the Oregon Library Association Quarterly called “Storytime can be Social Justice Time,” insisting that librarians think critically about representation.

“I don’t think anyone can be an expert in storytime inclusivity,” she wrote. “But what I am and what we all can be is a storytime provider willing to make some changes, make some mistakes, think about some practices, listen to other people tell their stories, and make more changes … wash, rinse, repeat.”

Forrester Campbell says she believes events such as families attending library storytime should feel inclusive. Books that include faces that aren’t white should also not revolve around a paradigm of “other worldliness.”

“My goal has been to have conversations with all my colleagues about making sure we are inclusive, yet not tokenizing,” she says. “And asking uncomfortable questions is one of the only ways to lead to better conversations.”

This was a concept that Sarah Park Dahlen, a professor of Library and Information Science at Minnesota’s St. Catherine University, separately noticed. Dahlen had acquainted herself with library offerings, and was concerned about issues of erasure and misrepresentation of diversity in children’s literature.

“We’re still not even at parity with children’s books in relation to how diverse our population is becoming,” she says. “We don’t have enough contemporary stories. There are so many books about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., which are super important stories to tell, but we also need to show more contemporary stories about African Americans who like to play Legos and like the Beatles. We need to show them as more complex.”

Efforts have shown progress—according to a study by the Wisconsin-based Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC), 28 percent of children’s books in 2016 featured diverse characters, the highest of any number since the study was first done in 1994.

But even while there were more colorful stories, only six percent of children’s books in that same year were written by authors of color. Diverse subject matter tended to be penned by white authors, not Black, Latino, Asian or Native American authors.

Duchess Harris, an African-American studies professor at Minnesota’s Macalester College, is trying to influence the imbalance of the two aforementioned statistics. With the help of ABDO, a Minneapolis-based children’s book publisher, Harris decided to bring her college curriculum to K-12 classrooms after realizing how little her college students knew about race relations and the Civil Rights movement to begin with.

While at Macalester, she says students came to her classes unprepared.

“For me, [the books I’m writing] are just, education-wise, getting [K-12 students] up to speed if they haven’t learned this stuff in school,” she says. I realized it would be so helpful if students had this material before they came to university.”

On Dec. 16, ABDO released the Duchess Harris Collection, a series of 24 books that focuses on complex topics of race that are digestible for younger students. Children in grades three through six and six through 12 can now learn about Black Lives Matter, the Reconstruction era, the Black Panther movement and the realities of slavery, among other topics, before they graduate high school.

Harris has plans to release more books by 2019 in a collection called “Freedom of Promise,” which will be similar in style to the current collection.

Ashley Andersen Zantop, chief content officer of Minneapolis-based children’s book publisher Capstone Publishing, says the public conversation has notably shifted toward curiosity about diversity recently.

“We can’t expect the world of publishing and media to be diverse world populated by a diverse group of professionals, unless we publish things that allow children and young readers to see themselves in that world,” she says.

Many authors believe it is not only important to expose children to diversity in books, but also in everyday life itself.

Shannon Gibney, author of children’s book See No Color, believes whatever she reads to her children has to be “very honest.”

“A lot of the history of race in this country, the way it’s taught, is really problematic and sanitized,” she says. “Kids are really smart, and they pick up on a lot more than adults give them credit for—a lot of stuff going on historically, politically, interpersonally and in their families and communities. I think we tend to infantilize kids all in the name of protecting them. They’re living in the world, and we have to talk about these things.”

A book doesn’t have to be conspicuously about race to allow conversation either, Gibney says.

“You can get a book about ballerinas, and have a conversation about race through that book, either because the book features people of color or because it doesn’t,” she says. “You don’t have to run out and grab something that’s obviously connected to race because then it feels like a separate thing that you do, as ‘allocated time to talk about race.’”

Author Kao Kalia Yang, who has written about her experience being Hmong American, says she has been reading books by as many authors of color as possible to her children. These also include folk tales from the Hmong heritage; Yang fights to expose her children to different cultures in their everyday communities.

“If our kids are being exposed to a wide array of life, then they will have an easier time placing themselves in the bigger spectrum of humanity,” she says.

Children’s books may also feature allegorical “gangs of fighting animals that should get along,” says biracial author Sarah Warren.

“A couple of the problems are you end up contributing to exceptionalism,” Warren, who is half black, says. “Like those kids are taught you have to be exceptional to be considered human. With immigration reform, and DREAMers, people say, ‘Wow, they should be here because they saved someone from a hurricane.’ But why does it have to be that? Why can’t you just be considered a normal human to be treated like one?”

Solutions lie in activities, such as what Campbell suggests. She says if there are no books around, extension activities such as flannel boards or puppet play around the book can still help inspire.

The Multnomah County Library in Portland is hosting “Talking About Race with Preschoolers” in January, a four-part seminar requested by parents to teach them about race that centers on conversation starters or playful activities.

“Parents would freak out like, ‘Help me get a book for my kid because he doesn’t look like other people,’ or, ‘Oh my god, I’m white and I have no clue how to even tackle this. No one even taught me!’”Forrester Campbell says. “We’ve definitely had an uptick in asking for resources about this since the election. But we want to make sure we honor different heritages and cultures, and that we don’t tokenize them in the process.”

Crystal Duan is a West Coast-raised, Midwest-bred writer based in Los Angeles. She has a weakness for Pad Se Ew, hot cheetos and philosophical memes. You can find her on Twitter @duancrys probably posting about politics or her shameless love of Nickelback.

Grace Molteni is a Midwest born and raised designer, illustrator, and self-proclaimed bibliophile, currently calling Chicago home. She believes strongly in a “beer first, always, and only” rule, and is forever seeking the perfect dumpling. For more musings, work, or just to say hey check her out on Instagram.

Below is a list of diverse children’s books, culled from various authors and librarians:

Children’s books:

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I LOVE MY HAIR, Natasha Tarpley (LB Kids, Brdbk edition [Nov. 2003])

A girl named Keyana has the tangles combed out of her hair every night, with her mother telling her how beautiful it is. Keyana’s African-American hair can be spun into a “fine, soft bun” or “plant rows of braids” along her scalp, prompting an appreciation for girls with hair that doesn’t fit societal standards.

THUNDER BOY JR., Sherman Alexie (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)

Little Native American boy Thunder Boy Jr. is named after his dad, but he wants a name that’s all his, like Touch the Clouds, Not Afraid of Ten Thousand Teeth, or Full of Wonder.

DOLORES HUERTA: A HERO TO MIGRANT WORKERS, Sarah Warren (Two Lions)

Teacher Dolores Huerta wants to fight for her students to come to school with full bellies and shoes on their feet. When the peacemaker finds out that the farm workers in her community are poorly paid and working under dangerous conditions, she stands up for their rights.

GRANDFATHER’S JOURNEY, Allen Say (HMH Books for Young Readers)

A Japanese-American’s grandfather once went on a long journey to America, which his grandson, who grew up in Japan, later also migrates to. Both experience dual parallelisms of wanting to love both places equally. This book won the 1994 Caldecott Medal for its beautiful illustrations.

I LOVE SATURDAYS Y DOMINGOS, Alma Flor Ada (Athenum Books for Young Readers)

On Saturdays, a little girl visits Grandma and Grandpa, who come from a European-American background, and on Sundays — los domingos — she visits Abuelito y Abuelita, who are Mexican-American. Throughout her weekends, we learn more about the girl’s bicultural love for both sets of grandparents, and theirs for her.

A DIFFERENT POND, Bao Phi (Capstone Publishing)

As a young boy, author Bao Phi fished with his father before the workday to catch food for the family at a small Minneapolis pond. Between hope-filled casts, Bao’s father tells him about a different pond in his homeland of Vietnam.

IN PLAIN SIGHT: A GAME, Richard Jackson (Roaring Brook Press, Macmillan Publishers)

A young black girl has a special game of “hide and seek” that she plays with her ailing grandfather. Each day when she visits him he tells her he’s lost a small item that she must help find.

Young Adult fiction:

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SEE NO COLOR, Shannon Gibney (Lerner Publications)

Alex Kirtridge is an adopted biracial teenager in a white family who’s a baseball star. Then she meets Reggie, the first black guy who’s wanted to get to know her; she discovers letters from her biological father that her adoptive parents have kept from her; and she hits puberty, affecting her game. Alex begins to question who she really is, and where her adoption, race, and ultimate identity really fits in.

THE HATE U GIVE, Angie Thomas (Balzer + Bray, HarperCollins)

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter attends a fancy suburban prep school by day and comes home to a poor neighborhood by night. But her fragile balancing of both worlds is shattered when her childhood best friend Khalil is shot to death by a police officer. Now Starr must decide if she wants to come forward and give her account of what happened that night.

NO CRYSTAL STAIR, Vaunda Michaeux Nelson (Lerner Publications)

This tells the true story of Lewis Micheaux, owner of the famous National Memorial African Bookstore in the heart of Harlem, New York. From 1939 to 1975, Micheaux’s bookstore became the epicenter of black literary life and a rallying point for the Black Nationalist movement.