Millions of American students of color spend their days leafing through books where none of the characters look remotely like them. Is it any wonder they feel excluded?
“Mommy, why does nobody in this book look like me?”
It’s a question that many parents of Hispanic, African-American or Asian children have heard before.
America today is an incredibly diverse country, but the majority of its children’s books seem stuck squarely in the 1950s. White nuclear families are everywhere. In 2013, two studies published the following eyebrow-raising findings:
1. Out of 3,200 published children’s books, only 93 were about African American people.
2. Although people of color comprise 37% of the US population, only 10% of children’s books contain multicultural content.
Still, as always, there’s a bright side if you look hard enough for it.
Out of the ashes of those findings, Scholastic Reading Club – which provides books for millions of American students (you probably remember their flyers from your own school days) – determined to do something about it.
First, they teamed up with We Need Diverse Books, a grassroots organization that advocates for more diversity in children’s books.
Since then, they have produced a series of diverse catalogs featuring books by authors from different backgrounds and crammed full of interesting, diverse characters. [Teachers: Visit Scholastic’s awesome website to find out more about using these fabulous catalogs. Everyone else can catch a sneak peek of one here. ]
Windows and mirrors
And yet, some might say, these are only books and stories with imaginary characters anyway. Some of them feature talking animals, for goodness sakes. Why should it matter whether or not children can see themselves in them?
For an answer, look to the ‘windows and mirrors’ theory. This holds that most white children see the books they read as ‘mirrors’, which reflect their own lives and experiences.
Kids of color, on the other hand, see those same books as ‘windows’ through which they peek at a world that isn’t like their own. In other words, they’re always on the outside looking in.
Rudine Sims Bishop, who first formulated the ‘windows and mirrors’ concept, was emphatic about the importance of providing inclusive books for young readers:
“When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read…they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part.”
‘Not my life’
As any parent knows, children are very alert to the world around them. They pick up on the smallest things.
So if a Hispanic child leaves his Hispanic family in the morning to join his mostly Hispanic classmates, then they spend all day looking at books where every single character is white, are we seriously saying that might not ultimately have an impact?
Do we really believe that Hispanic child will actually see himself as the white astronaut, pirate, scientist or firefighter?
The novelist Walter Dean Myers, a voracious childhood reader, recalls how such a dawning sense of alienation gradually turned him off books as he grew older: “As I discovered who I was, a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine.”
It’s only natural for children to yearn to see themselves in the books they read. Nothing crackles and fizzes like a kid’s imagination, and a big part of the thrill for young readers comes from imagining themselves caught up in the action, living the adventure as they read it.
That’s why many of us still have intense memories of our own childhood days spent nestled with a book.
Across the country, it’s a fair bet that thousands of adults today can still vividly recall the sense of danger in Peter Pan, the imagined taste of the Chocolate Factory candies, the wind in their hair as they flew in The Magic Chair.
More to the point: A majority of those nostalgic grown-ups can also probably remember exactly which characters they most identified with as children.
And that’s the problem. It’s a no-brainer to state that, if nobody in the story looks remotely like you, then such wonderful connections and memories are less likely to be made. You’re locked out before you’ve even started.
Diverse books work
Another good reason to publish and promote diverse books? They are much more likely to turn students of color on to reading.
In a survey of 2,000 schools, 90 percent of teachers believed children would become more enthusiastic readers if they had books reflecting their own lives.
And the big irony here is that students of color aren’t the only ones to suffer from such a lack of representation.
The white kid, sitting in a healthily diverse classroom, will also feel a disconnect from constantly reading typical [ie. white] children’s books because the images don’t reflect the real world around them.
Ultimately all young readers, whatever their origin, benefit from seeing books that embody the full human experience.
Today we live in a beautiful, gloriously diverse and multi-colored world. It’s just a pity that most kids need to look up from the pages of their books to see it.
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