The Apartheid of Children’s Literature

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MARCH 15, 2014

Of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people, according to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin.

I’M talking with a boy. He’s at that age when the edges of the man he will become are just starting to press against his baby-round face. He’s got his first opinions and ideas and jokes, which are horrible, because there is nothing that boys his age love more than corny jokes. There is a whole industry of knock-knock-joke books for boys this age. Everything about him is gangly; his voice and his limbs fit awkwardly, like hand-me-downs. He’s young enough that his smile is easy, and he is the kind of boy who finds reasons to smile in everything: the cracking of his voice, a fire-engine siren, the fact that a grown-up is talking to him and listening to what he says. When I talk with kids like this, our conversations always seem to go the same way:“So you’re telling me these are all the books published last year for kids?” they ask me. “That’s a lot of books. That’s more books than I could read in a year.”

“Yep, it’s a few thousand.”

“And in all of those thousands of books, I’m just not in them?”

“Well…um…yes.”

“Are there books about talking animals?”

“Oh, sure.”

“And crazy magical futures?”

“Absolutely.”

“And superpowers? And the olden days when people dressed funny? And all the combinations of those things? Like talking animals with superpowers in magical futures … but no me?”

“No you.”

Why?”

“Because you’re brown.”

I would like to have a proper enemy in this story — preferably a snide villain with a cape and a British accent and a posh cat or a ferret. With my unique history — two generations in the business of caring for kids with words and pictures — I would be the James Bond/Black Dynamite of children’s literature and foil this nefarious conspiracy. But, unfortunately, this story is more truth than fiction, and the villain here is elusive.

The mission statements of major publishers are littered with intentions, with their commitments to diversity, to imagination, to multiculturalism, ostensibly to create opportunities for children to learn about and understand their importance in their respective worlds. During my years of making children’s books, I’ve heard editors and publishers bemoan the dismal statistics, and promote this or that program that demonstrates their company’s “commitment to diversity.” With so much reassurance, it is hard to point fingers, but there are numbers and truths that stand in stark contrast to the reassurances. The business of children’s literature enjoys ever more success, sparking multiple movie franchises and crossover readership, even as representations of young people of color are harder and harder to find.

This apartheid of literature — in which characters of color are limited to the townships of occasional historical books that concern themselves with the legacies of civil rights and slavery but are never given a pass card to traverse the lands of adventure, curiosity, imagination or personal growth — has two effects.

One is a gap in the much-written-about sense of self-love that comes from recognizing oneself in a text, from the understanding that your life and lives of people like you are worthy of being told, thought about, discussed and even celebrated. Academics and educators talk about self-esteem and self-worth when they think of books in this way, as mirrors that affirm readers’ own identities. I believe that this is important, but I wonder if this idea is too adult and self-concerned, imagining young readers as legions of wicked queens asking magic mirrors to affirm that they are indeed “the fairest of them all.”
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