Children of Color Need to See Themselves in Books
Every year, my school assigns students a summer reading book. Assigning reading over the summer is important to help prevent the “summer slide” and build literacy skills even when classes aren’t in session. For the past few years, we’ve taken a one book, one district approach, similar to Chicago Public Schools. This means that we have selected one book for everyone in the entire district to read. The belief here is that, when everyone in the district has read the same book, it creates a sense of community among students and teachers because they all have the common experience of having read the same book.
This sounds great in theory, but it only works if the book catches the attention of the students in the first place, making them want to read it during their time off over the summer. This is more difficult than you might imagine; the last book we had widespread success with was Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games,” and that was because popular culture had done the job of publicizing the book for us. It’s especially difficult to find a book that is appealing to students of color, since it seems the majority of protagonists in young adult fiction are white. Last summer, our school selected a nonfiction book about Latino migrant workers in the United States in hopes that we would appeal to our Latino students — which make up about a third of our school — but dry nonfiction isn’t usually the way to go with summer reading.
The trouble is, we set out with diversity in mind when selecting texts for both summer reading and for our curriculum, but YA literature with protagonists of color is really hard to find. This weekend, the New York Times published two op-eds (“Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” and “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature”) about this very topic, both responding to a new study that found that 3,200 children’s books were published in 2013, and only 93 of them were about black people. Most of those were about slavery, the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement — all important times in our history, but almost none showed black kids having the kind of daring adventures or finding the love of princes.
This is a problem for young children of color, to be sure. Instead of seeing images of themselves on the pages, they are forced to split their consciousness and filter their dreams and ambitions through white protagonists while understanding that their underrepresentation holds certain messages for them — namely that it’s the white kids that get to have all the fun. However, this is a problem for white children, as well; by not seeing diversity among their children’s books, they learn other unconscious messages; for example, that black kids are only interested in slavery and civil rights. Just like feminism is important for young boys, diversity is important for white kids, too.
This problem carries over into high school, when I meet the children who have grown up on these whitewashed children’s books. The publishing industry doesn’t change much between children’s books and young adult literature, and one can make a solid argument that the classical literary canon is still very much made by white men and therefore imbued with racism and sexism. In class, while sticking to the classics, I’ve had moderate success teaching Richard Wright’s “Black Boy” and, more recently, Rudolfo Anaya’s “Bless Me, Ultima.” In my Advanced Placement class, I also teach Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” but there just aren’t as many options for students of color studying the classics. In YA literature, the options are just as bleak.
This is a huge problem, not only for my diverse school district and ones like it. By 2043, the United States is projected to become a majority-”minority” nation, meaning that there will be more people of color than white people living here. We must embrace that diversity, and part of doing that is providing children with the opportunitiy to see themselves reflected in the media they consume. This means that the publishing industry needs to change. Hopefully, with this pushback from news outlets, it will.
For a great infographic showing the trend in children’s literature, click here.
Photo Credit: UHDL