We are all familiar with the tragedies that have happened in recent months regarding the deaths of black men by the hands of the police. No matter your personal feelings on the issue—if you feel police actions were justified or not—we all know that race relations are at the root and remain something that needs to be discussed. Our race problem is part of a larger narrative in America, which, unfortunately, pervades our culture extensively. This can sometimes lead to a struggle when raising my children.
First of all, I am not part of the sometimes-insular community of publishing industry experts. I’m an average parent who wants to buy great books for my children and expose them to cultures and points of view they do not always get in our community or school. Many publishing experts have already written eloquently about the need for diversity in children’s book’s characters and authors. What I’m talking about instead is how the lack of diversity in publishing affects parents.
I grew up in a racially diverse city in Michigan and had the privilege of making friends of many different races growing up. By the time I made it into high school, whites were about a third of the school population, blacks another third, and the final third comprised of Latinos and Asians. When I got married, my then-husband and I decided to move north to the beautiful shores of Traverse Bay. And it was here I received a shock: nearly everyone was white. I could go days without seeing a person of color. And this made me sad. Not only for the lack of cultural diversity and the richness it brings to any city, but because my children would not know the joys of learning about another race or culture firsthand from a friend or classmate.
It’s About a New Normal
So, why is it important that books, especially children’s books, are more racially diverse? Because it is necessary that our literature reflects the society we live in. This doesn’t just go for race. This goes for those with different beliefs or religions, those with disabilities, those with a different family structure. Kids are curious. They are blunt and ask questions at highly inappropriate times. Having a library of books filled with people different from them not only shows them that differences make the world a more beautiful place, but also normalizes it so they simply recognize it as part of life. Learning about being scared of the dark or teasing or sharing or getting a new sibling is so commonplace in books that kids (and parents) barely question it.
Bringing the Problem Home
I was somewhat cognizant of the overwhelming white majority in our books, but I didn’t really go out of my way to remedy that. We got what we got from relatives. We had a few books about diversity or disability, but they had animals as main characters, so while the concept was there, it was still abstract. Then, one day at the beach, when my oldest was about four, a little girl was playing nearby digging holes. They naturally gravitated toward each other and started playing together. Then out of the blue, after a good 5–10 minutes, my son looked at her and (very loudly) said, “You’re black!” It was as if it suddenly dawned on him that they were different colors. He didn’t say it with malice, but the girl was confused and ran to her grandmother. I picked up my son, who was now also very confused, and went over to the little girl to apologize and to explain that he didn’t mean to hurt her feelings. Thankfully, the grandmother laughed and we sat down and chatted for quite a while.
Lack of Diverse Choices
I made a mental note right then and there to go buy some books with racial diversity. But, as stated before, such books are difficult to come by. If you search for racially diverse children’s books, you mostly end up with books about racial diversity. Those are all well and good, but I don’t need twelve different books about the same subject. I want a book that has a black main character that’s all about losing a tooth. I want a book with a Latino main character who’s afraid of the dark. If a book is about school, I want to see classrooms with more students of color, or a black principal, or an Asian teacher, because this is what our world is made of and it’s time our kids see that in their world of books. Having said that, I also realize changing colors of characters is just the tip of the iceberg for making diversified literature. Inclusion is good, but the way of thinking and looking at diversity is what needs to change.
All Races are Harmed
If you are a person of color, please forgive me. You already know the lack of racial diversity in books, even in our increasingly integrated world of 2014. You may be rolling your eyes at yet another white person finally figuring out a problem you’ve had to deal with your entire life. I’m not going to get into the racial and social prejudices that have brought us to this point or that have made people like me blind to these issues. I’m going to point out that these problems not only hurt a person of color, but any person, regardless of race.
Here’s What You Can Do
What, as parents, can we do? Talk to our kids. Read to our kids. Check out the books that made Foreword Reviews’ diversified book list. And for more hidden-away gems, peruse our list of picture books we’ve reviewed. There you’ll find Imani’s Moon, Princess Cupcake Jones Won’t go to School, When Mama Goes to Work, and many more. Hopefully, it will spark a conversation with your child and help satiate their curiosity of the world around them. By opening their world up to the diversity that’s out there, we can help prevent senseless deaths and riots. We can instill an understanding that we are all just people with the same hopes and dreams for a better future. Happy reading!
Shannan Spitz is a freelance writer based in Traverse City, Michigan. You can follow her on Twitter @shannanspitz