Much has been said lately about “casual diversity,” or placing POC in children’s literature when the book is not about race. Books with brown characters are frequently about being brown, or more specifically, the burden of being brown. Do African American children only see themselves reflected in books about slavery and civil rights? Is the publishing industry, which is overwhelmingly white, willing to permit images of brown people in the books they create? The fact that this is even a discussion makes it painfully clear that white is the default setting in the children’s book industry. The writers and illustrators, the agents, the publishers and the reviewers are largely Caucasian. Lee and Low’s 2015 Diversity Baseline Survey (http://blog.leeandlow.com/2016/01/26/where-is-the-diversity-in-publishing-the-2015-diversity-baseline-survey-results/) revealed that 89% of book reviewers are white, 82% of editors are white, and 86% of publishing executives are white. Clearly, white people are the gatekeepers here and hold much of the power in determining how POC are depicted in children’s literature.
Kathleen T. Horning, director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, a library of the School of Education, University of Wisconsin–Madison, stated in her July 7, 2016 article in The Horn Book titled The Enduring Footprints of Peter, Ezra Jack Keats, and The Snowy Day
“Unfortunately, the times have not kept up with Ezra Jack Keats, and, in fact, a picture book with a young contemporary African American boy as its protagonist is almost as rare today as it was in 1962. To be sure, there are many more books about African Americans today than Larrick documented back when The Snowy Day was first published. But of the 269 titles about African Americans counted by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center in 2015, there were only eight picture books featuring contemporary African American boys. (Low though that number is, the good news is that it’s up considerably from 2012, fifty years after The Snowy Day’s publication, in which only two were documented.)”
I find these statistics to be heartbreaking. The message sent by this sort of underrepresentation is one of invisibility and lack of value. At a portfolio review with a well-respected literary agent, I was asked the question “Why do you draw brown people?” I paused for a moment, surprised by the question. The agent, sensing my hesitation, quickly commented that drawing brown people is a good thing, something that the industry needs. His default setting as a white person was to question this representation, to indicate that the contents of my portfolio were not what he was accustomed to seeing.
Rumaan Alam’s recent article on Nighlight, a pop-up blog from Slate, titled We Don’t Only Need More Diverse Books. We Need More Diverse Books Like The Snowy Day. expresses the desire as a parent of color to have books with brown characters that do not have brownness as the central conflict.
“It’s not hard to find charmingly illustrated biographies of great Americans such as Rosa Parks and Jackie Robinson, Dizzy Gillespie and Barack Obama. It’s not hard to find black and brown faces in folk tales and fables from unfamiliar cultures. It’s not hard to find frank histories that use fiction to teach about fact, whether it’s the slave trade or the struggle for civil rights. It’s not hard to find storybooks with the noble aim of teaching our children that their skin, their hair, their noses are beautiful.”
Corduroy by Don Freeman (1968) and The Snowy Day are used as examples of what Mr. Alam would like to see more of:
“Must every book featuring black faces force our children to confront the tortures of our past and the troubles of our present? These are important things that our black and brown children must learn—but they must also learn the pleasure of reading a story in the relaxed, quiet moments before bed, reading not to learn but to feel safe, feel loved, laugh, wonder. That’s a fundamental privilege of childhood and should not be reserved for only one set of children.”
The idea of white privilege including seeing oneself reflected in books that create a safe space and contribute to a carefree childhood is something that all people in the children’s literature industry need to be aware of. Books are mirrors and windows, so not only are books that tell brown children that their race is a problem impacting brown children, these books are impacting white children who only see brown people depicted as victims and brown skin as a problem to be overcome.
Some recent picture books that feature brown characters in a manner that does not address race as a burden include Excellent Ed by Stacy McAnulty and illustrated by Julia Sarcone-Roach (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016). Excellent Ed is a book about a dog named Ed who doubts his own excellence in a family of high achievers. Every single member of the Ellis family has skills and talent, and Ed is a bit less skilled and less talented. The Ellis family is a brown family. The text does not mention this fact, but they are African American and they are adorable. Excellent Ed has the charm and appeal of The Snowy Day; it also shares a very natural and non-problematic placement of an African American family in a story that is not about being African American.
More-igami by Dori Kleber and illustrated by G. Brian Karas (Candlewick, 2016) is another book that features multiple races, but is not about race. The text is specifically written with race in mind, with characters named Sarah Takimoto and Mr. Lopez. The book makes references to Japanese culture with the topic of origami and to Latino culture with a Mexican restaurant, so it has a much more deliberate feel as far as the racial inclusivity is concerned. Dori Kleber made choices to include several races in More-igami. I prefer the seamlessness of Excellent Ed, where the race of the Ellis family doesn’t feel forced in any way. By naming the characters and naming the restaurant, Ms. Kleber is making us aware of her deliberate choices. She checked off four boxes by including four different races in a book that’s not about race.
What picture books have you seen lately that haven’t defaulted to white? Which books pull it off without self-consciousness? What race are the authors and illustrators, and does this matter?
For next month's post and moving forward, please send me questions and topics that you would like to discuss that involve libraries, books, diversity, and the children's literature community. firstname.lastname@example.org
Fifi Abu spends her days surrounded by books that have already been created and the rest of her time writing and illustrating books yet to be born. She looks forward to a day when all children can see themselves reflected in the books they read. Ms. Abu holds a master's degree in children's literature and a master's degree in library science, is an active member of SCBWI and a Children's Book Academy graduate.
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