Growing up in India, as solidly part of the majority (at least in terms of race and religion), I never fully appreciated the importance of diversity in my book choices or indeed felt the sort of alienation that children’s book author Grace Lin suffered growing up Chinese in a predominantly white American town (which she describes in this wonderful TED talk).
Now living in a multicultural society (with multicultural children!), I can’t ignore the importance of providing diversity in my kids’ reading choices — stories of different races, religions and nationalities, of course, but also of disability and economic status, and eventually, sexuality. It’s also critical to provide stories with diverse heroes where the theme is NOT the issue of diversity (e.g. black characters in a civil rights book).
Even if your children are part of a majority culture, enriching their world view through exposure to different experiences maybe more essential now than ever before. More than fifty years ago, former President of the International Reading Association, Nancy Larrick, wrote an article “The All-White World of Children’s Books” in the Saturday Review, and noted:
“Across the country, …nonwhite children are learning to read and to understand the American way of life in books which either omit them entirely or scarcely mention them. There is no need to elaborate upon the damage — much of it irreparable — to [the child’s] personality. But the impact of all-white books upon white children is probably even worse. Although his light skin makes him one of the world’s minorities, the white child learns from his books that he is the kingfish. There seems little chance of developing the humility so urgently needed for world cooperation.”
My picks for essential reads on this topic:
Attempts to diversify lily-white kid lit have been, well, complicated.
By Dashka Slater in Mother Jones. Sep/Oct 2016.
Why read this? A great read which will bring you up to speed with the issue facing the publishing industry (and us, as book buying parents).
A couple of excerpts:
“Within five years, more than half of America’s children and teenagers will have at least one nonwhite parent.”
“Writers and scholars have bemoaned the whiteness of children’s books for decades, but the topic took on new life in 2014, when the influential black author Walter Dean Myers and his son, the author and illustrator Christopher Myers, wrote companion pieces in the New York Times’ Sunday Review asking, “Where are the people of color in children’s books?” A month later, unwittingly twisting the knife, the industry convention BookCon featured an all-white, all-male panel of “superstar” children’s book authors. Novelist Ellen Oh and like-minded literary types responded with a Twitter campaign — #WeNeedDiverseBooks — that spawned more than 100,000 tweets.”
We Need Diverse Books has expanded into a grassroots organization that promotes diversity in children’s books and is a great resource for diverse children’s books of all kinds.
By Tammy La Gorce in the New York Times. Sep 6, 2016.
Why read this? If you haven’t already heard of the #1000blackgirlbooks campaign started by Marley Dias in 2015 (while in sixth grade after she got “sick of reading about white boys and their dogs”), this NYT article summarizes it nicely.
“[Marley] also thought it was important for people outside her demographic to get a sense of what it’s like to be a black girl, much the same way she had gotten an inkling of how it feels to be a white boy by reading books like “Old Yeller.”
“We have different stories, different points of view, different issues in the world,” she said. “Other people should be able see that.” ”
By Randy Boyagoda in the Paris Review. June 25, 2012
Why read this? My personal favorite (and a must-read for all those who grew up in Britain’s former colonies on a diet of Enid Blyton), this one captures many of our experiences reading Enid Blyton’s adventures of middle-class white English kids while growing up brown in the Indian sub-continent. The Sri Lankan-Canadian author discusses the complicated feelings many writers have toward their own childhood immersion in Blyton’s foreign world and the resulting rejection they felt toward their own childhood selves and surroundings.
For me, part of the escapist enjoyment of these books was the exotic setting where children ran around unsupervised in the countryside eating sweets called humbugs and sandwiches instead of rotis and rice. Besides, most of us (urban Indian kids whose first language was English) had virtually no other choices in children’s books while growing up in the 1980s and 1990s. And the reality was that we found stories set in rural India (such as the brilliant R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi Days) just as exotic as Blyton’s stories set in 1950s England. Still, it’s certainly worth considering whether our own world views were shaped by this childhood immersion into a strange, foreign, white world, and I’d hesitate to let my children read them without some explanation.
“But because [Blyton’s] success depended upon such patterned writing, she was also accused by librarians, teachers, and academics of relentlessly dulling the imaginations of her young readers, and of unjustly encouraging those who were reading her from abroad to make identifications that race, geography, history, and politics preemptively denied them. This certainly seems to have been the case for the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; in a 2006 interview with The Times, she explained that her development as a writer was stunted by her early reading: “When I started to write, I was writing Enid Blyton stories, even though I had never been to England. I didn’t think it was possible for people like me to be in books.”
“Intellectually, I sympathize with these postcolonial renderings of Blyton’s invidious effects upon young imaginations, but my own experience isn’t captured by their accounts.”
Finally, it’s encouraging that most schools and libraries have made it a priority to diversify their book shelves. And I sympathize with the challenge of finding high quality children’s books with diverse characters, but given the political climate we find ourselves in, it seems like an effort worth making!
Thanks for reading!
Resources and further reading:
- Kitaab World: I just came across this terrific new online source for South Asian books, puzzles and toys, based in the US
2. This NPR story has more on the disconnect between kids books content and the market:
3. The Walter Dean Myers opinion piece in the New York Times
4. From KQED’s Mindshift:
5. Another great resource for diverse books: