The conversation about diversity in children’s books has become amplified in recent years, in large part due to the creation of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag and the nonprofit with the same name. The discussion has exploded, with the need for diverse representation in kidlit being talked about in all corners of the publishing world. An initial look at numbers seemed that the conversation has spurred some momentum for change, but is this true?
But, according to new data from the Children’s Book Center, as discussed in this blog pos by Lee and Low, the past two years have shown an increase in number of children’s books featuring people of color — a big one. In 2013, only 10.5% of children’s books depicted people of color. In 2016, the number jumped to 28%. So yes, racial diversity in children’s books is increasing.
And this is incredibly important. Representation in literature is essential for children of all races. For children of color, seeing themselves reflected in the books they read is crucial. When they fail to see themselves in books, they internalize the message that society devalues and erases them, and it can negatively affect their self-esteem. For white children, having books that accurately reflect the world around them helps to build empathy for people that are different from them, and helps open up discussions about race and oppression.
But here’s the catch: Black, Latinx, and Native authors combined wrote less than 6% of children’s books published in 2016. Let that sink in for a second: the number of children’s books with characters of color is going up, but the number of authors of color being published remains dismally low. What this means is that many of the books featuring characters of color are being written by white authors, which means that opportunities are being denied for people to tell their own stories.
Yes, white people should care about addressing the diversity gap in publishing. And yes, white authors should absolutely include people of color in their books. But it’s important how those characters are being featured: white authors writing protagonists of color can be tricky. It raises the potential that some of these “diverse” books may include problematic representations and stereotyping, or white authors writing stories that aren’t theirs to tell, appropriating culture and stories from other people (Remember that offensive Holocaust romance novel written by a Christian author? That’s the kind of kerfuffle we’re talking about).
So the key to closing the diversity gap needs to include not just who is in the books being published, but who is writing those books. Because as long as books are being written predominantly by white people, the diversity issue isn’t being solved on a deeper level. Instead, white people are profiting off of stories that don’t belong to them, and taking money and platforms from authors of color. As Innosanto Nagara, author of social change books for kids, told the Washington Post, “diversity doesn’t just mean the same books with a brown face on it (though that is needed too), but that we are also able to reflect an expanded perspective, cultural, political, and otherwise.”
Perhaps one of the most important findings of the Lee and Low data is how societal anti-Blackness is reflected in who is being paid to write children’s stories. Only 25.5% of books about African-Americans were actually written or illustrated by African-Americans (the numbers were 40% for Native people, 61% for Latinxs, and 89% for Asian Pacifics). This resistance to letting Black people tell their stories is not new; mainstream white culture routinely steals language, style, music, and intellectual property from Black culture and claims it for their own. It’s one of the most insidious aspects of white supremacy.
This is an age-old issue. When the New York Times raised the issue of diversity in children’s literature in 2013, it wasn’t a new or never talked about one. An article had been published in The Saturday Review back in 1965 that called attention to the all-white world of children’s books.
When a problem is so entrenched, it doesn’t budge overnight. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying, and trying hard. Today, if the predominantly white publishing world really cares about diverse books, they need to not just put diverse characters on the pages, but open the door to authors from marginalized populations who have all kinds of stories to tell.