The Year of the Diverse Children’s Book

By Hania Mariën

By the time she got to fifth grade, Marley Dias was “sick of reading about white boys and dogs,” she told Huffington Post. The ambitious eleven year-old was determined to find books that reflected her experiences. In her 2015 book drive, #1000BlackGirlBooks, Dias set out on a quest to collect 1,000 books featuring strong black girls.

Representation is important, Dias said, “You always want to have something you can connect with…if you have something in common with the characters, you’ll always remember and learn a lesson from the book.” The eleven year-old’s initiative is admirable – but also highlights a critical need for a more accurate representation of our nation’s population demographics in public discourse, including children’s literature. Young black girls (like other marginalized groups) must work harder to find positive reflections of their realities both in and out of the classroom. Yet it is important to remember, as Zareen Jaffrey, executive editor of Salaam Reads emphasized in an interview with Education Week, that diversity in children’s literature is more than having “characters of different backgrounds; it’s about respectful representation.”

Books are one source children can look to for validation of their experiences. Unfortunately, Dias isn’t the only kid in the United States who struggles to find this validation in the books she reads. 

While 37% of the United States population identifies as people of color, only 10% of children’s books in the last 21 years contain any type of multicultural content. Of the diverse children’s books that are published, many are banned: the American Library Association estimates that over half of all banned books are by authors of color or concern diverse communities. These numbers illustrate how the publishing industry is censoring the realities of many of our nation’s children. 

Such censorship has negative consequences: children who do not see (positive) reflections of their experiences internalize that their stories are of lesser importance or decreased validity. These consequences are especially acute among students of marginalized and underrepresented groups. Jaqueline Woodson, prizewinning author of Brown Girl Dreaming, explains that “many people don’t realize what it’s like to spend year after year not seeing reflections of yourself in literature and how damaging it is to one’s self-esteem.” 

This should concern a nation desiring to increase access to higher education for all students. While affirmative action programs and financial assistance play an important role, they are only one part of the puzzle. The educational and career aspirations of students are shaped by the stories they are told – or are not told – in their childhoods.

Fortunately, the children’s book industry is making some transitions. In 2014, the number of books by/about people of color increased – from 10% to 14%. Earlier this year, Matt de la Peña became the first male Latino to win the John Newbery Medal – one of the nation’s most prestigious honors for children’s books – for his Last Stop on Market Street. From September 25−October 1, 2016, Banned Books Week will celebrate diverse literature “that has been banned or challenged,” and “explore why diverse books are being disproportionately singled out.” Furthermore, this school year the grassroots organization We Need Diverse Books partnered with Scholastic Inc., the world’s largest children’s book publisher, to feature diverse children’s books. Beneath a headline of “Diversify your Library! 10 Books for $10,” the 2015 Scholastic Reading Club flyer strived to make these books more visible.

Reflecting on the past year, author Daniel José Older noted that the publishing industry got “excited about diversity quickly.” While buying ten “diverse books” from a catalog may diversify our libraries, a diverse library will have more than ten books that feature characters from historically and presently marginalized groups. “Diversity” in publishing is not a trend. It’s what Older calls having “honest” books – books that more accurately represent our nation, and the complex identities of the individuals that live in it.

At a recent children’s book forum, 2015 was referred to as the year of the “diverse” children’s book. Eleven-year-old Dias reminds us that our work – as citizens, consumers, educators, parents, students, readers – is far from over. It is imperative that 2015 does not become simply the “Year of the Diverse (Children’s) Book.” Instead, let 2015 be the year we look back on and wonder – how did we ever justify an “All-White World” of (children’s) literature?

Hania Mariën is a junior at Willamette University majoring in anthropology and Spanish. Willamette University is home to the Delta of Oregon Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.