People of Color Underrepresented in Children's Books

Nina Lindsay, Supervising Librarian for Children's Services at Oakland Public Library, continues the discussion for Monday's KQED Forum Program on the lack of diversity in children's books.

This post was originally going to be about "beauty" in children's books.  Inspired by Lupita Nyong'o's speech at the Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon, I wanted to talk about picture books that tell children they are beautiful in real ways, like My People, Me Frida, Flora and the Flamingo or Jingle Dancer

But then I was invited to appear, Monday morning, on KQED's Forum program for a panel discussion on why people of color are underpresented in children's books.    According to statistics collected by the Cooperative Children's Book Center at UW Madison, a disproportinately small number of children's books each year are by, or about, people of color.  Why is this the case? And why hasn't it changed?  I started my studies in this profession exactly 20 years ago, and we were having this exact same conversation....and it wasn't new then either.  

I invite you to listen to the podcast of the Forum program.  It felt like the conversation had just gotten started there.  We started asking  how can we leverage the market to create a demand--in dollars--that publishing houses and big box bookstores will respond to.  One of my colleagues alerted me to The Birthday Party Pledge:  committing to give multicultural books to the children in her life for one year.  She started recently, headed to a 4-year-old birthday party, and stopped at a local independent bookstore in Oakland to select a book.  She could not find one book in stock that was age appropriate and featured any children of color.  Not one.  She settled on Jerry Pinkney's The Lion and the Mouse; a beautiful book that highlights another symptom of the problem, as Pinkeny is only the second African-American ever to win a Caldecott Medal.  (Others have been awarded a Caldecott Honor, but still too few.  Listen to the Forum program for my thoughts on that.)

If we'd had a few more minutes on the program, I would have wanted to say: not every individual book has to do everything for everyone.  But the body of work that we create, produce, buy, and read for our children--the best of children's books--must be better at addressing all of its readership.  Kids read and respond to things they identify with, and things that are different, in books--helping them craft their identity by reflecting it, and expanding it.  Kids also start to build prejudices from what they see in the world, and in books, from a very early age. What kinds of experiences are we denying children of all kinds by not showing them experiences of all kinds in their literature?  

This is everyone's responsibility.  What can you do?  Think about it when you're choosing books for kids (your kids, your classroom, a present, donations to the Oakland Mayor's Toy Drive, whatever!) and ask for it.  That's a start. 

Which book do you want to share?


When I was much younger,I

When I was much younger,I wanted to be a writer.I used to receive information about writing books.I was just wondering how children of color are being exposed to books and how are parents encouraging or not encouraging them to read stories about themselves.I think its a community effort.I have recently reacquainted myself with the local library and that would be a place to start for parents to take their children.I think supporting those who may not be in the mainstream of larger publishers,may look at self-publishing.I would love to write children's books.Are there people out there willing to conduct workshops to encourage future writers?

Thanks so much for the

Thanks so much for the shout-out, Ms. Lindsay. It definitely can be a challenge to find bookstores that carry titles by and about people of color. I'm an award-winning author but continue to self-publish many titles since it is virtually impossible to find an interested publisher. I expect to have 5 new chapter books ready by the end of April--just in time for spring school visits and book fairs. Books need to reflect diversity but they also need to be affordable, which is something even a small press like Lee & Low seems to overlook (my 2008 picture book BIRD is still in hard cover and sells for $20). Your readers might also be interested in a segment on "the diversity gap" that I taped for WNBC here in New York:!/on-air/as-seen-on/Dr--Zetta-Elliott-on-Diversity-in-Childrens-Books/246539611

Thanks again for sharing the Birthday Party Pledge with others.

I listened to the show, Nina.

I listened to the show, Nina. It is discouraging, isn't it, to realize we've been having this conversation for so long?

You pointed to Jingle Dancer in your essay. I'll echo that recommendation. It is terrific!

For a newer book for older (upper MG/early YA), I suggest Eric Gansworth's IF I EVER GET OUT OF HERE.

For MG, Tim Tingle's HOW I BECAME A GHOST.

I agree, it's a sad state of

I agree, it's a sad state of affairs when you go into a Bay Area bookstore (or any bookstore for that matter), finding no books that feature children of color. Totally unacceptable. There are so many people who care and are trying to make a difference, but it's hard not to despair. Thanks for contributing to the Forum discussion, which hopefully brought people's attention to the issue, and maybe highlighted some books people didn't know about before. The Birthday Party Pledge site gives recommendations as well! Glad to see you still out they getting books to kids - since we met many moons ago back when I worked at Lee & Low!

Zetta, thanks for sharing the

Zetta, thanks for sharing the link to your WNBC interview!

Affordability is indeed an issue. Libraries tend to buy in hardcover, so that doesn't help push the publishers to invest in a paperback run. Hm.

Hi, Nina. I think publishers

Hi, Nina. I think publishers can commit to both--a limited run of hardcover books for libraries and schools, but that could be paired with or followed by a more affordable paperback edition (in a reasonable amount of time, say 3-6 months). It frustrates me that publishers seem to ration books about people of color. They create false scarcity as if that heightens the value of the book. I accept that libraries may not acquire my self-published paperbacks, but I hope that affordable books will help with the development of more home libraries. I'm coming to Berkeley in June and wondered if we could connect. I'll try to find an email for you or feel free to contact me.

It's great to see this topic

It's great to see this topic raised on KQED. Great job, Nina.

Recently, Jill Vialet, CEO and Founder of Playworks, wrote a children's novel Recess Rules for middle grades. Recess Rules is the story of a group of fifth graders who work together to save recess in their community, reminiscent of Vialet's diverse hometown of DC.

We were happy to provide free copies of Recess Rules to students we work with in urban communities across the country and their school libraries. It has been very fun to see many of these students excited about reading.

Playworks is happy to make the book available for free to other schools and public libraries.

Thanks for sharing. I will be more aware of the books I am reading to my kids and will encourage others to do that same.

Zetta, looking forward to

Zetta, looking forward to meeting you in June! I will post again with an update on our conversation.

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