It’s no secret we have a problem with diversity in children’s literature, that is taking a sustained effort to overcome. Since 2012, children’s literature has doubled in diversity but continues to be low across the board. It is a multi-prong problem that requires a change on multiple levels, including, publishing houses, educators, consumers, booksellers, librarians, and illustrators and authors. The problem is widespread and systemic. Literature without diversity provides a false picture of what it’s like to live as a human. It misrepresents the real world, and consequently, children don’t learn about the culturally diverse lives and experiences that surround us.
Books can be likened to mirrors, where young children see representations akin to their lives and encounters—but also as a way of looking into others’ existences and varying cultural backgrounds. It’s a way to increase awareness and gain a new perspective on culture. For children to become excellent readers, it is important they can choose books that have characters and images that are reflective of their lives. Kids need to learn to appreciate both the differences and sameness they have with varying cultures.
Just a Myth: ‘Multicultural books don’t sell.’
Diverse books can sell, and they do sell. Diverse books reflect a broad range of backgrounds and experiences—including class and race—written by a wide variety of people. Multicultural stories are empowering and inspirational. And they can be good for business when given a proper chance, Latinos, African-Americans, Native Americans, Asian, Pacific Islander Americans, the LGBTQ community, and much more are part of a growing market with diverse authors, characters, and stories.
Diversity in literature goes right across the publishing spectrum as well, meaning a publishing house should represent a variety of races, tonicities, ages, cultures and sexual orientation—writers from culturally diverse backgrounds. Five years ago, less than 9 percent of all books were written by diverse authors, and less than 11 percent were about diverse characters. That trend started to change in 2014 when for the first time, statistics indicated a year over year increase in children’s books by and about people of color. However, even with the change, in 2015, 73% of all books depicting humans were still white—with second place going to books that do not involve people at 12%, followed by 8% that contained African-American characters. The statistics speak for themselves. Change is needed.
One of the main reasons cited by publishers for not offering diverse books is that they don’t think anyone will buy them. So while most publishers agree that reflecting a diverse readership is becoming more important, they continue to fear that multicultural literature just won’t sell enough to sustain their company.
What can be done?
It is fundamental that books need attention to sell, and if they aren’t getting the necessary marketing attention, they will sit on the shelf and collect dust. If publishers used their power and influence on creatively marketing diverse books, sales numbers would reflect that.
The demographic makeup found in the publishing arena is currently not diverse at all, with nearly 80% being white. Some publishing house is already taking steps towards equal opportunity employment and are running paid internships that are widely advertised—in contrast to the usual narrow focus on current employees. They are also accepting CV’s without any demographic data to avoid unconscious bias.
Bookstore owners have an excellent opportunity to affect change as they are constantly giving our recommendations to a variety of customers. Not only do they work with individual customers they also help schools with a curriculum which can be on a vast scale.
Agents need to seek out a diverse range of writers and not pigeon hole them. If an agent is representing an author of color, they need to be flexible and allow them freedom in writing—and not force them to write about an “issue.”
Diversity in library collections and school programs is an essential piece to this problem. Library programs need to have materials representing the many languages and cultures so that children develop cultural literacy. School librarians need to introduce diversity with these materials and run programs to promote cultural literacy and sense of universality. Librarians can also help kids build positive attitudes towards children they may view as “different” from themselves by introducing authentic literature containing diverse themes and characters. The materials need to be positive in nature and should be representative of a broad range of cultures, perspectives, and experiences.
When school budgets get slashed, the emphasis on the importance of language arts often is one of the first things to go. But more educators are starting to understand the need for different books the school—and that they teach tolerance, respect, universal human emotions—all while helping to dispel stereotypes and learn about other kids around the world. Teachers can support this through their choice of literature in the classroom and can reinforce or counter stereotypes through the use of a picture book. That is a valuable tool.
Diversity is not a trend. The world needs to work towards having books as diverse as human beings are—a world where children have the opportunity to respect and understand different cultures in their everyday reading.
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