This week a social networking campaign was launched entitled #weneeddiversebooks. Their tumblr page has more information about the campaign but in a nutshell the aim is to draw attention to the lack of diversity in children’s books. Growing up white and middle class I consistently saw myself in the books I read. Whenever anyone tells me that growing up they never saw themselves in the books they read, or had read to them, it takes me aback and reminds me of my privileged position and reminds me how crucial it is that all experiences are validated.
Walter Dean Myers and his son Christopher Myers recently wrote an op-ed each on the disturbing fact that in 2013 out of 3200 books published for children only 93 showed black people. You can access the articles here and also here. Both father and son are children’s authors so their insight is key to the discussion at hand. I was very happily surprised, not too long ago, that I could buy my black goddaughter a book about San Francisco in which the main character is a little black girl. What this emphasized to me though is how much of a default the ‘white’ experience is. Many books that feature black protagonists tell a story that highlights the protagonist’s race; for example they may be a historical novel or they may be about a famous black figure. I read a comment earlier on in the year regarding black actors at the Oscars; the writer pointed out that almost all the roles black actors have been nominated for are roles that a white person could not have played as they are historical figures such as Mandela, Solomon Northrup, or roles such as ‘the help’. Publishers use The Market’ as the excuse as for why there is a dearth of non-white people in children’s books; I’m sure movie producers use the same line. Both Walter Dean and Christopher Myers go into this in more articulate detail than I can so I refer you back to the two op-eds for more on The Market and its nefarious hold on children’s books. The ‘white default button’ needs to be consistently questioned and not accepted as such. We don’t need a range of ‘multicultural’ books just as there shouldn’t need ‘multicultural’ crayons in order for children to find a color that matches their skin. I have nothing against the term ‘multicultural’ but children of color should be able to see themselves in the most banal of storylines. The word apartheid may sound strong but when children of color don’t see themselves in the books that surround them, there’s an implicit notion that ‘they’ are not like ‘us’. One of the things I loved about living in New York was that you are faced with people different to you on a daily basis: on the subway, in the supermarket, and in a host of other places that have no specific ethnic markers: ‘they’ are just like ‘us’, no matter what your ‘us’ is and who the ‘they’ are.