Last Sunday The New York Times published two insightful columns, my favorite of which was by children’s book writer Walter Dean Myers. One of the most important things Myers reminds us of is this deceptively simple truth: “Books transmit values.”
Why is it deceptive? As Myers points out, when we do get black main characters in children’s books, they tend to be slaves or poor kids in bad situations. That’s a problem in and of itself. Children of color need to see themselves in books doing anything and everything. But the other side of the coin is that white kids also need to see main characters of color doing anything and everything — because their values are being shaped as well.
How bad is this problem? In an ongoing study run by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we see some appalling numbers. In 2013, here are the percentages of children’s books published about people of color in the US:
- African Americans: 3 percent.
- American Indians: 1 percent.
- Asian Americans: 2 percent.
- Latinos: 2 percent.
The percentages for children’s book authors of color are significantly below that. And what’s even worse is that these percentages have been, at best, about the same for more than 10 years. In the case of African Americans, the number of books published about black characters is the lowest it’s been since 1993.
I’m not sure what the answer is. And I do hope that with access to publishing opening up due to e-books, we’ll see these numbers improve. But there is one sure way you can help: support writers of color, and buy books that feature characters of color. Traditional publishers aren’t backing up their empty words about diversity with action, but readers can.