What happens when children’s books omit characters of color?

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16COVER-superJumboOf the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, only 93 were about black people, according to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin.

And just 57 were about Latinos.

Yet about 40 percent of public school students nationwide are black or Latino.

There’s more than a numerical disparity at work here. There are psychological, social and even economic costs in depriving young readers the chance to see people like themselves reflected in the books they open.

On Sunday, the New York Times enlisted two noted authors of children’s books which do feature characters of color to explain those costs.

Walter Dean Myers was an avid reader as a boy. He loved Robin Hood, James Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus, The Red Badge of Courage‘s Henry. But he turned off to reading when, a little older, he realized that as “a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine.”

“Books did not become my enemies,” he writes. “They were more like friends with whom I no longer felt comfortable. I stopped reading. I stopped going to school. On my 17th birthday, I joined the Army. In retrospect I see that I had lost the potential person I would become.”

When black characters do appear in books or movies , they are usually trying to overcome slavery or racism, Myers says. Where are ordinary people, or people with professional talents, such as chemists, engineers or doctors?

Books transmit values, Myers continues. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?

Where are the future white personnel managers going to get their ideas of people of color? Where are the future white loan officers and future white politicians going to get their knowledge of people of color? Where are black children going to get a sense of who they are and what they can be?

Christopher Myers, Walter’s son, notes that children use books as maps to their future. While “searching for their place in the world,” he writes, “they are also deciding where they want to go. They create, through the stories they’re given, an atlas of their world, of their relationships to others, of their possible destinations.”

We adults — parents, authors, illustrators and publishers — give them in each book a world of supposedly boundless imagination that can delineate the most ornate geographies, and yet too often today’s books remain blind to the everyday reality of thousands of children. Children of color remain outside the boundaries of imagination. The cartography we create with this literature is flawed.

Perhaps this exclusivity, in which children of color are at best background characters, and more often than not absent, is in fact part of the imaginative aspect of these books. But what it means is that when kids today face the realities of our world, our global economies, our integrations and overlappings, they all do so without a proper map. They are navigating the streets and avenues of their lives with an inadequate, outdated chart, and we wonder why they feel lost.

Innovations for Learning has long recognized the importance of including characters of color in the reading materials we present to students.

“We have gone to considerable lengths to make our stories ethnically diverse,” says Seth Weinberger, Innovations’ founder and CEO. “We have a rainbow of skin types in our illustrations, a diverse set of ethnic names, and topics that are aimed at inner city youth.”

And all stories are available in Spanish as well as English.

Illustration by Christopher Myers/New York Times

 

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