Storytelling is in our human bones. It has evolved as part of our functional biology, and we rely on it as a means of survival since the hunter-gatherer days.
Stories promote social learning, teach us conflicts and various resolutions, and pass on the lessons learned by older generations. As primates who constantly need to process information, stories are vital to us.
Storytelling plays an especially key role in the development of a child. Children’s books offer learning opportunities like no other pastime. They teach our kids how to get by in society, how to interact, how to interpret societal structures, and how to grasp new concepts.
The books we read as children help shape the way we see the world today.
As kids, it is easy to accept our books as a gospel of truth and goodness. But not all books are made equal. Many of them promote subtle or even blunt hatred that now, as grownups, we are actively fighting against.
That’s why diversity in children’s books is so critical to promoting a more inclusive, equitable future.
The Majority of Books Do Not Represent Our Reality
The prevalence of white children in children’s books does not reflect our diverse reality.
According to Social Justice Books, over half of the children enrolled in U.S. public schools are people of color or Native American. Yet only 22% of children’s books published in 2016 were about people of color, and fewer than 13% of books published were written by people of color or Native Americans.
Numbers aside, what does that mean?
It means that countless children of color grow up without seeing people that look like them in their favorite books and shows. No similar people to identify with, no accessible role models to learn from. It means that countless children of color grow up being told that they do not matter.
Until recent years, it was uncommon for a book to include a character of color. It was even rarer for that character to be the focus of the story instead of the quirky sidekick who adds whimsy to the plot.
The inclusion of diverse narratives can reinforce the idea to underrepresented children that you can be your own savior, and not just the side-plot in someone else's story.
What Our Eyes Choose Not to See
We have a blind spot when it comes to acknowledging diversity. In fact, we have many of them.
Popular media respects and normalizes only a few cultures. We make little effort to understand the many aspects of other people’s lives—they remain unfamiliar.
People make fun of things they find to be unfamiliar and allow their perceptions to be filled with existing prejudice. While no one is born racist, children are taught racism through our institutions until they become unknowing vessels for hatred moving forward in their lives.
Literature plays a part in this. Historically, books are not prone to diversity. Many characters that have become literary icons stem from racist ideals.
Take Dr. Suess, for example. Suess’ picture books contain harmful, stereotypical depictions of people of color, yet they can be found on bookshelves around the world. In a bid to correct this issue, Random House Children’s Books recently banned the publication of 6 Suess classics because each contained caricatures that promote blatant racism.
Dozens of our favorite characters, from Bugs Bunny to Mickey Mouse, are adapted from minstrel characters who were originally designed to humiliate and dehumanize Black people.
Racist imagery is sneakily included in the books that raise our children, promoting the acceptance of stereotypes and normalizing the structural implications of racism.
The Push to Bring Diversity to Children’s Books
There is good news, too.
Today, children’s authors see the importance of including diverse narratives and exposing children to light social justice issues early in life.
Now more than ever, publishers are embracing diversity and releasing books that represent people across the spectrum of humanity, whether it be including various races, gender identities, ages, ethnicities, sexual orientations, body sizes, and socioeconomic statuses.
Children need to be surrounded by books that foster positive development and encourage equity for all.
Let’s look at some authors and books that got it right.
As a child growing up in the early 2000s (with a middle school librarian as my mother), I learned the value of a good book early on.
My go-to bedtime story was Liza Lou and the Yeller Belly Swamp by Mercer Mayer. This book tells the empowering story of Liza Lou, an independent and fierce girl who rids the southern bayou of evil on her own.
Similarly, Ambitious Girl by Meena Harris celebrates the strength of young women, and critiques people who look down on young women for their ambitions. It instead celebrates self-discovery and urges that a patriarchal society does not get to decide who you are, you do.
Embracing Your Beauty
Beauty standards often reflect the eye of the colonizer, making feeling beautiful as a person of color extremely difficult, even impossible.
Lupita Nyongo’s 2019 book Sulwe is a magical children’s book that celebrates your own personal beauty. The book teaches that your beauty is your own, and your own only. It touches on colorism, self-esteem, and your beauty within.
Also, on the topic of beauty, Joanna Ho’s Eyes that Kiss at the Corners teaches children of color to embrace their heritage despite what beauty standards have taught them to believe. Focusing on Asian representation, the story describes the trauma that comes with being bullied because of the shape of your eyes and describes Asian beauty and culture with eloquence.
Children of color are taught at a young age that something is wrong with them or that they are ugly just because they don’t look like their white peers. These books act as a saving grace for those (myself included) who grew up thinking that their beauty was invalid.
Ernesto Martinez’s When We Love Someone We Sing to Them is a children’s book that embraces Latinx culture and celebrates LGBTQ pride. Focusing on the tradition of the Mexican serenade and drawing from Mesoamerican mythology, Martinez created a modern story that shows tradition and inclusion, which haven’t historically come hand in hand.
And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell is another example of LGBTQ representation that is now accessible to children. This story offers an anthropomorphic and fun way to introduce children to diverse families. Both stories validate same-sex families and focuse on nurturing LGBTQ youth, which are necessary messages for young readers.
Holly Robinson Peete’s My Brother Charlie is one example of many that includes the narrative of a person with a disability. The story, which won Peete an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in March 2011, shows a powerful, stereotype-busting representation of a child who happens to be neurodivergent. The story shows the love, challenges, patience, and acceptance that comes with having an autistic loved one through an honest lens.
Using Storytelling to Right Our Wrongs
There is no doubt that our children’s books, as well as our society as a whole, have a diversity problem. Though each year we make progress towards being a more inclusive and equitable society, we still have ways to go.
Children lead by example and thrive in inclusion, making it necessary that their books promote equity and inclusivity for all.
Diverse characters are few and far between, but our reality is immensely diverse and beautiful. Children’s books must reinforce the diversity that society relies on, so that kids who do fit the norm see exposure to different livelihoods, and so that kids who don’t fit the norm can have representation throughout their entire lives.