We all love fairy tales. As a child, one of my favorite television shows was HBO’s Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales For Every Child. This show brought about so many wonderful memories growing up. I knew these stories, I heard them hundreds of times over, but seeing myself in those characters on television always made it more real. The representations of these classic characters as black characters were magical and for once, I felt I was allowed the opportunity to use my imagination.
As I got older, I became a huge book lover. I used books as means of self-affirmation for many years. There were more books about unicorns and dragons in my school library than there were of children of color. Which is how I developed my love of science fiction. In school, there was an obvious difference between the classroom demographics and the books made available to us, not to mention my own skin and culture. Having books that mirror your own image can be a sense of relief when you are searching for your own ‘normal’.
Having the ability to see yourself in stories has its benefits. You can listen to any counter argument that usually says something along the lines of “it’s up to the parents to make sure you have self-esteem” or “they’re just fairy tales why should it matter?” or my favorite “well more black people need to start writing books”. If you have the ability to grow up with seeing yourself constantly represented in literature and television, it’s possible you will never understand the importance of having characters and stories speak to you and your existence. It is important for children to see themselves mirrored in books (and television). While it is most certainly up to parents to teach their children about self-love, children of color are often left with feelings of ‘not being good enough’ because they don’t see themselves represented in books often.
As a parent, I feel it is okay for me to step up and critique the visual and verbal representations of black characters in children’s books. Oftentimes, the most popular stories featuring black characters are written by white authors. Snowy Day and the most recent Ada Twist Scientist are two of the most popular.
These two books, also represent what’s missing from many children’s books with black characters: Imagination. These books, encourage the use of imaginative play with loveable, relatable characters. I personally feel as if there should be more books on the market like this, but unfortunately for children of color, there is a huge void with these types of characters.
There are historical stories about Black children escaping slavery, and Asian kids in kimonos with dragons on the silk, and Native American kids in traditional garb, but these are not the imagination-expanding type of books. Corduroy is one lovely book with black characters just being people. Unfortunately, it stands out not only because it is so beautiful, but also because it is so rare to see a little black girl in a role every child can relate to.
The question you have to ask is what is missing from this picture? Many people never ask this question, it simply never occurs to them that people of color, women, differently able people, etc. are not found in books, movies, and TV. If you do ask if you do notice, you are immediately accused of being too pc or a bean counter, like that, makes the observation any less true. Or that it “shouldn’t” matter, but of course it does.
The Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, Madison’s Education School revealed that in 2016, it counted 427 books written or illustrated by people of color, and 736 books about people of color out of about 3,400 books it analyzed. That adds up to just 22 percent of children’s books.
I’ll be discussing not only the representation of these characters, but also who are the main ones being allowed to present the visual, three categories current popular stories fall in to, and solutions on how we as parents, educators and authors/publishers can correct this problem. And as a bonus, I’ll also share with you a few of my own recommendations as well.
Representations of black characters in children’s literature
I did a quick Google search: Multicultural Children’s Books and African American Children’s Book Characters. The screenshot above and below is the list of books that came up in both searches. Out of that list, “Snowy Day” by Ezra Jack Keats is the only story that encourages imagination for children of color. Outside of Keats, the other stories were illustrated biographies and stories about freedom or struggling to survive hard times. I would also like to point out, that out of 7 searches using various keywords, “Snowy Day” came back as the #1 search in every single last one.
There are no Harold and the Purple Crayon or Fancy Nancy books featuring children of color. Children of color should have the opportunity to see themselves represented with timeless characters (maybe even a dedicated series), similar to those mentioned above.
A great piece from the New York Times reads:
Books transmit values. 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?
And what are the books that are being published about blacks…all but a few motion pictures being made about blacks are about blacks as victims. In them, we are always struggling to overcome either slavery or racism. Book publishing is little better. Black history is usually depicted as folklore about slavery, and then a fast-forward to the civil rights movement. Then I’m told that black children, and boys, in particular, don’t read. Small wonder.
Millions of children are denied a vision of themselves as artists, or mathematicians, or writers, or whatever. They are denied both fictional and real role models that help them imagine being the creators of art or life other than limited, often stereotypical ones. Or, denied any picture of themselves at all in the books that show others all the time.
If we want to instill the love of reading, we do that by not only finding books children will like and read, but also stories they can relate to.
Instead, our children are presented with illustrated biographies of civil rights leaders or we are given characters with no name and no identity (i.e. Sounder). From the article, The Apartheid of Children’s Literature “characters of color are limited to the townships of occasional historical books that concern themselves with the legacies of civil rights and slavery but are never given a pass card to traverse the lands of adventure, curiosity, imagination or personal growth.”
The importance of having an authentic voice to connect with your readers
Like many people, you often gravitate towards like minded people. Children and books are no different.
Because of the naivete and unwillingness to learn, having an author that can authentically deliver the character’s purpose cannot only be accomplished through being a great writer. Experience is the best teacher, and in order to get into the head of a character and really deliver you should be part of that culture.
The Market is what determines which types of books are sold and distributed. The problem, also, is that The Market lacks creativity. They publish what they think they can sell, depending on what they sold in the past. They don’t look at demographics and how children are different now than they had been twenty years ago when I was in kindergarten. Books for children and young adults with a diversity of protagonists and eye-capturing illustrations need to be published.
Currently independent publishers such as Lee & Low Books, ArtePublico Press’ Piñata Imprint, and Just Us Books, along with countless others, are largely responsible for the diversity in the children’s and YA book markets, a fact that is unlikely to change until mainstream publishing houses are economically motivated to acquire and promote works by authors of color.
Critiquing the visual and verbal representations of black characters in children’s literature
Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, Distinguished Scholar of Children’s Literature, sought to distinguish whether or not, a distinctive African American cultural experience was reflected in the books; and whether the author’s implicit cultural perspective and ultimately its effect on the treatment of the books’ themes and characters.
She also categorized these books into three areas: socially conscious, melting pot and culturally conscious. The books and categories can be determined based on the times periods in which these books were produced.
Bishop concluded “Although African Americans share much common ground with all other Americans, African Americans also share with one another that “concord of sensibilities,” molded in part by our responses to the racism to which we have all been subjected. This collective cultural worldview has also been shaped by the values passed from one generation to the next to preserve past history with a view to preparing the next generation to meet its own challenges. Additionally, it is this worldview that has influenced and informed the topics and thematic emphases that are prevalent in African American children’s literature.”
The Problem Socially Conscious Children’s Books
With a few exceptions, the primary audience for those books is White readers who are being encouraged to develop a social conscience—an awareness of social injustice and of their responsibility to help make things right. These books mainly deal with racial conflicts between Blacks and Whites, centering on desegregating schools and neighborhoods, attempts to ensure equitable treatment for Blacks, and personal conflicts between Black and White children. This focus is not surprising given the time and the social context from which they were produced and published, mostly between 1965 and 1970. The characterization of Black people in some of these books left much to be desired. Black children and families are too often positioned as exotic or alien and too often tainted with some of the stereotypes lingering from past literary portrayals. The White protagonists are often vehicles for conveying messages about the need to be empathetic, sympathetic, or at least tolerant in their interactions with the Black children and families with whom they are coming into contact.
When looking for examples Sounder and The Cay immediately come mind.
The faults in Sounder, according to Bishops categories lies with how the story is presented. The families passive reactions (unfair judgment of the sheriff), the mother’s passive action over whether or not her children should be properly educated are just a few of the problematic instances within the story.
Armstrong’s decision to leave the family unnamed and the fact that we know little to nothing about their background also causes concern. The story itself is written in third-person limited omniscient, ( a point that emphasizes how the narrator thinks and reacts to events) because of this we are only given the narrators reactions to events. The reactions from the character are really the reactions of the author. This means the families passive reactions to racism coming from white characters were the author’s own voice coming through. This led to the debate whether or not Armstrong was capable of writing about southern blacks during the Jim Crow era.
The problem with Melting Pot Children’s Books
Melting pot books are picture books illustrated with black characters, we aren’t given any other background information on said characters. These are books that are often times in picture book form (i.e. Snowy Day and Corduroy). These books choose to ignore all marks for the character, other than skin color, that might identify them as black. The characters in these books are often portrayed to live lives similar to that of White middle-class children. While this is a huge step forward and works well in the interim, we are left with books that don’t speak to the black experience authentically. There is a huge difference between writing to someone and writing about someone.
The refusal to acknowledge cultural differences in these stories, is similar to “I see no color”, it seems great, but in the long run, you are doing more harm than good. Many of the books that fall into the ‘melting pot’ genre are written by white authors. Many of these books are deservedly well received, yet, they only focus one aspect of the African-American experience.
Due to the popularity of these books in the late 70s, 80s, and 90s we now have an entire generation of parents raising children based on these melting pot books. In the end, the colorblind theory does not work, the lack of awareness many mothers have when it comes to their children’s understanding of diversity is a cause and consequence of the color-mute approach to racial attitudes. Most importantly, a colorblind approach to racial socialization for children is an ineffective method for preventing racial bias in White children as they develop racial attitudes.
Many of the books in this category are written by white authors. This is due largely to the fact that major publishing houses publish more white authors than black authors. This does not mean black authors aren’t writing the stories, they just aren’t being published at the rate white authors are being published.
When searching for an authentic voice and connecting with your audience, there is a huge difference between writing to someone and writing about someone. At what point does the authors’ implicit cultural perspective affect his or her treatment of characters and themes? Many times, the authors’ knowledge of black Americans, African-Americans and minorities and culture are extremely limited, oftentimes, those limitations manifest in books. Anti-black bias in white children can manifest unknowingly due to cultural limitations of the authors.
Well isn’t it racist to assume that all characters are white when no description is given?
No. Case in point, the Twitter outrage when Rue was a black girl in the Hunger Games instead of, and I quote, an “innocent white girl” (because black girls can’t be innocent, never mind the fact she was black in the book.) Also, part of why whiteness is taken for granted is because a lot of authors only reference skin color for non-white characters. Treating white as the default is what’s commonly referred to as the “invisible norm.” Making an observation and pointing out the lack of diversity is not racist. Asking for more authors of color to be published with mainstream publishers is not racist either. Unless publishers started keeping track of their submission demographics, we will never know how many authors of color submit and are turned away.
Culturally Conscious Children’s Books
These are books set in Black cultural environments, have black majority black characters and are told from their perspective. These books can be written by white and black authors. They also include textual means of identifying characters as Black, such as physical descriptions or distinctive cultural markers.
Fairy Tales & Children of Color
The biggest argument most people give for fairy tales not having people of color is because of the origin of the story. There are several authors over the years that take these classic children’s stories and re-imagine them with characters of color. The books listed below are some of Audrey’s favorites. But, with the lack of voice given to many authors of color, it appears the only way we will have characters of fables published is to have them done by white authors.
Children’s books with black characters should not be limited to oppression narratives.
The photo above from my Google search proved my point. Many of those stories are historically based, while it’s great to tell children these stories, for non-white children, these books make up a little over half of the books on the market. It appears that for young non-white children, imagination, wonderment, and fantasy are all sacrificed at an early age, which is all common themes among great children’s books. Fairy tales and fantasy books, help children better understand themselves and the world around them.
“They [children] recognize the boundaries being imposed upon their imaginations and are certain to imagine themselves well within the borders they are offered, to color themselves inside the lines.”
When children aren’t allowed to fully explore all capacities they can become rigid. Let’s face it, not all parents encourage their children to use their imagination. Not because they are bad parents, but because they just don’t think about it. As an adult, you tend to think it may come naturally, but unless you actively encouraging your children to seek out and use their imagination it won’t develop. Minority children begin discovering their racial identity and experiencing conflict in that identity between the ages of 3-5. Children’s positive views on racial/ethnic identity depend largely on positive associations with race presented to them. This understanding of when children begin developing racial attitudes and racial identities illuminates why it is important to create positive depictions of races and race relations for young children. For black children, in particularly black boys, they are often portrayed as having lost their innocence by the time they reach a certain age (usually around 8-10-year-old mark). This can be very frustrating for parents, like myself that want to protect their boys from the dangers of the world just a little bit longer, but due to politics we are left having to provide them with the harsh realities of life at a very young age, while their white counterparts get to enjoy the tag of ‘youthful innocence’ a few years longer.
Why the representations of black characters in children’s books matter
Characters that are authentically written helps all children, not just brown and black understand and appreciate different cultures. The ideas learned not only at home but represented in media, specifically books, are what help shape our future ideas.
When it comes to cultural identity, books are a perfect way to teach children. One topic often left out of the conversation is dialect. Children’s books are rarely written in dialect, with exceptions like the classic Brer Rabbit. This is important because you can often guess a person’s culture simply by their speech pattern, and in fact identify in that way, regardless of color. For children learning to read, however, dialect is very difficult and often frowned upon because it does not teach formal English. In fact, one could argue that animal character stories can reflect a specific culture through dialect, even in the absence of black (or Asian, Native American) characters.
Which is why we have an abundance of animal stories from African cultures, and in my opinion which is why many publishers are often quick to publish these types of stories with a generic “West African Tale” thrown in at the end, rather than pursue original stories written by authors from those cultures.
The importance of displaying diversity for our youth
We need publishers and educators to become more committed to teaching and sharing books with non-white characters. When educators become equally committed to displaying books that feature diversity, it teaches all children to appreciate the diverse world around them and promotes harmony a young age. As a teacher, having the correct representations of black characters in children’s books can greatly improve your students love for reading. Young black boys are most often stereotyped into not being ‘avid readers’. With the lack of characters and stories on the market for them to connect with, as a teacher having more diverse stories can help learn to love reading. The same way Harry Potter encouraged a generation of young boys to read, we need more stories like this for nonwhite children to enjoy as well.
For publishers: wake up. The smartest publishers will not ignore this demographic because it isn’t being exploited (and I mean that in a good way), but embrace it and make money from it. The lack of books about children of color is definitely not from a lack of talented writers, but a lack of houses unwilling to seek them out. The audience potential for children of color is huge, if only they could realize how to tap into the children and young adults like this. By publishing only a limited number of books each year with characters of color and only promoting one type of theme with children’s books you are putting limits on children’s imaginations. We live in a rich and diverse world. Children should see that their literature reflects that.
While diversity, or lack of, in children’s books which seem to be the core issue, why not challenge people of color to step up and open up the minds of their children, as opposed to blaming white people for everything under the sun?
People can delve into the world of children’s books all they want. They still need to be published and purchased. If buyers for stores aren’t interested, publishers don’t publish them. Now if you want to address the issue of people of other races getting more involved with publishing and acquisition, you might be able to pose a decent argument, don’t derail the topic.
As A Mother How YOU Can Help
In addition, I’m also holding parents accountable. Let’s start supporting books with a wide range of diverse characters. Let’s start supporting authors of color. Keeping up with classics are great, but let’s help usher in a new era of beloved children’s classics. With this understanding of when and how children form and develop racial attitudes, and how these attitudes impact children’s racial identities, it can be reasoned that accurate and positive racial representations can cause dramatic changes in the way children perceive race, and ultimately how they view their peers and themselves. Therefore, the depiction of race within children’s picture books has a significant influence on the development of young children’s racial attitudes and racial identities.
When reading stories to your children, engage. If your child makes a negative comment during a reading, don’t ignore, challenge and correct their statement. By failing to challenge or contradict your child’s view, you are allowing this bias to grow. Avoidance of an issue never solved anything. As a mother, let’s start with ourselves. Race and discrimination are not going away, no matter how young your children are it’s never too early to start the conversation in an age appropriate way.
There are a number of wonderful books with characters of color that focus on imaginative play. Here are a few of our favorites:
I support great literature regardless of the color of the character or author. The problem isn’t that the stories aren’t being told, it’s that they aren’t being published. I believe all people should have the opportunity to see themselves mirrored in literature in a variety of ways. When it comes to stories about children of color, in particular, black children, I would love to see the narratives and themes switch to something similar to the stories of white characters.
[THIS POST HAS BEEN UPDATED TO ANSWER QUESTIONS THAT WERE INITIALLY LEFT IN THE COMMENTS]
Water, melanin, bones, blood. In route to death, while I’m here, might as well get shit accomplished.
Photographer, fitness enthusiast, blogger, and mother of two.