It's a pretty typical question: What books have you read lately? But there’s another question that’s not quite as typical: In the last book you read, did the main character or author look like you?
It's a question that is particularly important for children and teens, whose worldviews are being built, at least in part, by the books they read. Many parents feel it is important to foster a love of reading in their children, but do they consciously ask themselves what books they’ve read by authors of a different ethnicity? Or a different nationality?
The Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Madison-Wisconsin tracks the data on racial diversity in children’s publishing. In 2016 it received 3,400 books for kids. Of those, 286 (or about 8 percent) featured an African or African-American main character. Only 93 of those (less than 3 percent) were written by African/African-American writers.
As of July 1, 2015, the U.S. Census Bureau puts the African-American population in the United States at 13.3 percent. Comparing these numbers indicates a clear proportional disparity in representation of African-American characters in children’s books, and especially of African-American writers themselves. And the numbers on Native American, Asian-American and other minority populations are equally or even more disproportionate.
So what difference does it make?
In a recent TED Talk, Chinese-American and Newbery Honor writer Grace Lin shared a story she heard from a school librarian whose students stopped teasing and bullying their Asian-American classmate after reading Lin's book "Where the Mountain Meets the Moon," which features a Chinese protagonist.
BJ Epstein, in a recent Newsweek op-ed, wrote, “Research on prejudice shows that coming in contact with people who are different — so-called 'others' — helps to reduce stereotypes. This is because when we see people who initially seem different, we learn about them and get closer to them through their story But while it may be ideal for children to actually meet people from different backgrounds in person, if that isn’t possible, books can serve as a first introduction to an outside world.”
When inclusive books are featured, this type of learning about the other can happen in classrooms across the country and can also provide children from different backgrounds an opportunity to finally see themselves represented.
Kim Slater, a BYU alumna, teaches middle-school students at a Native American school in Washington state. She reported on the important difference inclusive representation can make:
"This January, I introduced the students to Sherman Alexie's 'The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian' as our second book of the year. (The students) hadn't liked our first book much and as we'd read it I realized I'd had no clue that the book, while a good story, was written very much from a white, middle-class perspective. With 'The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,' however, it only took a few pages for students to show some interest. Throughout our reading of Alexie’s book, it became very common to hear students bursting out with 'I’m just like that,' or 'That’s like what happened to me.' They invested themselves in the book."
This is one area where simple awareness can make a big impact. Several writers of color have hit The New York Times' young adult best-seller list this year, including Angie Thomas, Nicola Yoon and Melissa de la Cruz. (Although there fewer on the children’s and middle-grade lists). There has been an increased focus on making sure writers of color are represented on author panels at writing conferences across the country. And organizations like We Need Diverse Books provide grants to children’s writers from various backgrounds, as well as resources for people to find the best books by a diverse spectrum of writers.
But essentially, it’s up to parents to keep inclusion in mind when their kids are looking for books to read and when they talk to their children’s teachers about classroom books. It doesn’t take a lot of effort, just a bit of thought.
Which brings readers back to that first question: What have parents — and kids — been reading lately?
Sarah Allen has an MFA in Creative Writing from BYU and is currently working on books for young adult and middle grade readers. Learn more at http://www.sarahallenbooks.com/