Why color matters in Children’s Literature

by Fallon Bleich, Head Editor, INALJ Arkansas

Why color matters in Children’s Literature

fallon.bleichThere’s been a lot of press lately on the lack of diversity in children’s lit. I, for one, am trying to become a champion behind that issue and work to get more diverse literature not only in libraries but also published…because if there is no demand, publishers won’t supply it. Who am I to take on this issue? I’m someone who can testify to the power of representing everyone in books; I’m someone who is Native American, Japanese, and White; I’m someone who is so vaguely brown that I end up being targeted for weird racial remarks but also get included in a lot of situations where white people are the other. All of these reasons make me a good candidate to take on this issue, but I’m also perfect for it because I’m an adult who had to struggle to find relatable characters in the fiction I read as a child.

Let me start from the beginning: the person I wanted to grow up to be when I was a kid was Claudia Kishi from the Babysitter’s Club books. She was cool! Artistic and not stereotypically Asian; she wasn’t great at math, she loved art and her grandmother, and she dressed amazingly. But most of all, Claudia was the first person I ran into that looked like me. As a kid, that’s a transformative experience. Don’t get me wrong, I had read a lot of great stuff up to that point, but it was either filled with all white people or animals. I couldn’t aspire to be any of those things, but I could literally grow up to be Claudia. Claudia Kishi was my gateway into a world of reading that I could actually relate to, and I think that’s important for kids to have access to. The flip side of all of my Claudia adoration is that when I read other materials, I enjoyed them, but not as much as having a character that looked like me. So, when I was about 12 or so, I started devouring adult literature and found the characters that I was looking for; this is not a solution for everyone. There are kids out there who will not do that. They will give up and just chalk reading up as another experience where they are excluded or that isn’t for them.

There have been a lot of great strides to shed light on this problem; what’s really problematic for me, though, is that it hasn’t changed much since I was reading The Babysitter’s Club. Last year, according to the CCBC report (http://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/pcstats.asp), books about Asians and Asian Americans represented just .01% of the total amount published. The numbers are even worse for Native Americans, who come in at a measly .006%. So where are kids like me to turn, and should we be surprised when kids don’t want to read? If there is nobody to relate to, how can kids really get into reading? Obviously, a lot of this is in publishing houses’ hands. If they don’t publish multicultural stuff, then we, as librarians, can’t get it into kids’ hands. But, what we can do is try and stock our libraries with as diverse materials as possible. We can check the lists and order from publishers who take the time to publish awesome materials for kids of all races.

And most importantly, we can know this information, so that when that amazing, mixed-race child like me comes up to the desk to ask for something new to read, then we can offer her something that she can relate to.

Do you need resources to help diversify your library? I highly recommend the awards lists from ALA, but also Lee and Low (a great publisher that strives to publish diverse works) has a great list of resources on this page: http://blog.leeandlow.com/2014/03/21/where-can-i-find-great-diverse-childrens-books/