American children today are a part of a culturally diverse country and global world, yet research by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) and other groups suggests that children’s books published as recently as 2015 still do not reflect this growing diversity. Although in the past four years there has been a slight increase in the recognized books published about and by people of color, there remains a vast gap in relation to the overall number of books published that focus on white or animals characters (Dahlen, 2017). According to Dahlen, in 2015 the CCBC reported that 73.3% of books published depicted characters who were white, and 12.5 % were animals or inanimate objects such as trucks (Dahlen, 2017, p.4). While picture books about animals will always be popular among children, publishers and writers still have a long way to go to write and publish books that celebrate many colors and backgrounds. For libraries, this is not just a matter of offering variety to their young patrons. As reported by Naidoo (2014) regular exposure to diverse collections helps children build positive self-images, validates lived experiences, and fosters cross-cultural connections locally and globally. High-quality diverse children’s collection assembled according to professional standards can potentially help young patrons build social skills necessary to thrive in a culturally diverse society.
Children respond to stories in which characters that look like them or share similar characteristics or behaviors, and illustrations play a significant part in this process. Recent celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats include references to letters the author received from a range of people deeply impacted by the black “every-child” character in the story. One teacher wrote that “The kids in my class, for the first time, are using brown crayons to draw themselves.” In her article on children’s book illustrations, Roethler (1998) discusses how each child goes through “identity formation” and visual literacy’s role in this development (or lack thereof). According to Roethler, children are repeatedly exposed to images (either positive or negative) through books, and these images become part of the child’s “schemata” that partially inform how they view themselves (p. 97). In other words, if Black or Asian children see images of themselves in negative ways or are absent entirely from the narrative, this will impact the child’s self-worth and place in his or her world. Roethler argues that illustrators who are white can unwittingly pass along their prejudices in their “interpretation.” Black illustrators, however, are more likely to understand their own culture, just as Asian, Latino, and Native-American illustrators are. While there have been more writers and illustrators of color represented in books in recent years, the reality is that more need to be published that fairly represent this country’s reflection and that of other countries. Distinguished writer Walter Dean Myers stated in a NY Times article, that growing up he wanted “to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me.”
Librarians have a voice and they choose what is purchased for their libraries and what is displayed, read during story times, or promoted during special programming. Librarians must ensure that all children “see” themselves in some part of the collection, whether a child is Black, Asian, Latino, or Native American, identifies as LGBT, or physically disabled. NYPL Mulberry Branch Youth Librarians shared with us that promoting diverse collections can stimulate young patrons’ imaginations and creativity by helping them look beyond the range of their own experiences. These librarians also indicated that keeping up with the diversity can be daunting but worth the effort. The positive impact on young patrons will be life-long and far-reaching (personal communication, April 21, 2017).
Huyck, David, Sarah Park Dahlen, Molly Beth Griffin. (2016 September 14). Diversity in Children’s Books 2015 infographic. sarahpark.com blog. Retrieved from https://readingspark.wordpress.com/2016/09/14/picture-this-reflecting-diversity-in-childrens-book-publishing/
Dahlen, S. (2017). Picture this: Reflecting diversity in children’s book publishing. APALA Newsletter, 34 (2), 1-12. Retrieved from http://www.apalaweb.org/apala-newsletter-winter-2017-is-out/
Naidoo, J. C. (2014). The importance of diversity in library programs and material collections for children. Association for Library Service to Children, American Library Association. Available http://www.ala.org/alsc/sites/ala.org.alsc/files/content/ALSCwhitepaper_importance%20of%20diversity_with%20graphics_FINAL.pdf
NPR Staff. (2012, January 28). ‘The Snowy Day’: Breaking Color Barriers, Quietly. From All Things Considered, National Public Radio. Retrieved April 20, 2017 http://www.npr.org/2012/01/28/145052896/the-snowy-day-breaking-color-barriers-quietly
Myers, W. D. (2014, March 15). Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books? The New York Times. Retrieved April 14, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/16/opinion/sunday/where-are-the-people-of-color-in-childrens-books.html?_r=0
Roethler, J. (1998). Reading in color: Children’s book illustrations and identity formation for black children in the United States. African American Review, 32 (1): 95–105.