I wrote this essay for a class, but I decided to publish it! If anyone is interested in seeing any more of my research, let me know!
The Fault in Our Books: The Importance of Diversity in Children’s Literature
85, 88, and 97 percent of the characters in the books on the 2013 New York Times bestsellers list for young adult fiction were white, straight, and abled respectively (Lo, “Diversity in the 2013”). The lack of diversity in mainstream media is widely addressed–with the exception of children’s books. When the characters in the books read by children do not represent the diverse population of the children, a feeling of inferiority is created for the children who do not see themselves (Paul). The lack of diversity does not only affect children of minorities– the children who are represented also suffer through the lack of education about new cultures. Reading books featuring characters of minorities is essential to the development of self-esteem and comprehension in children because reading about different characters encourages acceptance of unfamiliar cultures and promotes the idea that everyone is equal while furthering a love of reading in children.
The problem of diversity in children’s books is as old as children’s books themselves. The first time this issue was ever addressed publicly was in 1965, with the article “The All White World of Children’s Books” (Bishop). This article sparked a discussion that was strong among librarians for about a year, before the subject died off, only to be addressed again in 2014. Numerous studies have been conducted over the last few decades and the results are unanimously the same: the vast majority of books have main characters of white race and a large percentage of the already small number of books with diverse characters portray them in a stereotypical way. In recent times, there has been a lot of buzz around this issue because of an emerging organization: We Need Diverse Books. This organization came to be because of an outrage at the lack of diversity on author panels at BookCon, a large book convention, in 2014. This discussion spawned the hashtag “#WeNeedDiverseBooks” and the organization was formed after that (diversebooks.org). The organization has devoted itself to advocating diversity in the children’s publishing industry. In addition to this foundation that is harnessing a large amount of attention, schools around the country are starting to include more culturally diverse books in their curriculum. Even with these new developments, the lack of diverse characters in books is still a problem. Such an important discussion should not only be had in the publishing industry. Research shows that the “Big Five” publishers: Penguin Random House, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster, are still publishing young adult and children’s books that rely heavily on characters of white race, christian religion, heterosexual sexuality, and cisgender gender.
One of the main problems of the lack of diversity in children’s books is the effect it has on the self-esteem of children of minorities. When children do not see themselves in books, they feel as if they are not important, as if they do not belong in books. This causes them to feel as if they do not belong in society: they feel “devalued” (Bishop). Children with an alternative home life, such as two mothers or an alcoholic parent, also have their self-esteem hindered when they are not represented in books; their home life will start to feel “secretive” to them (Paul). If it is not portrayed in books as normal, children will not feel comfortable talking about their problems with their friends. This creates a dynamic of one-mindedness and exclusivity, as well as affirming gender roles and “traditional values.” Minority children want to see themselves in a positive present and future. A large amount of the already small number of diverse titles are about historical issues and thus not relatable to children. Level three of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is belonging– “to be accepted and liked by other people in a group” (Merriam-Webster). Never reading about characters similar to oneself makes one feel like they do not belong; it diminishes their self-esteem.
A commonly seen aspect of this problem that affects the self-esteem of children is stereotypes. Certain stereotypes are laughed at, such as the feminine gay man or the drag queen-esque trans woman (Lo, “LGBT Stereotypes”). This diminishes the self-esteem in both people who do and do not have these stereotypical traits when they are portrayed this way. Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie introduced the concept of a “single story” in her 2009 TED Talk, “The danger of a single story” (Adichie). A single story is a one-dimensional view of a complex reality. For example, a large amount of Americans think of Africa as an entirely third-world area– when in reality, parts of Africa are just as metropolitan as New York City. Single stories emphasize people’s differences rather than their similarities. One character is not representative of all their type. Children are very impressionable and susceptible to believe what they are told. If all of the black characters in books are poor, they will assume that all black people are poor. Diverse books are necessary to show children a broad range of lifestyles for every race. The nature of children is to love; they have to be taught hate and discrimination. One-dimensional books with stereotypical characters only help enforce racial supremacy and prejudice.
A huge factor of self-esteem in children is the feeling of normality. Kids need characters like themselves to feel normal. Shockingly, there are more books about fictional creatures such as dragons or unicorns than children of minorities (Myers). This teaches kids a powerful lesson about their own importance. Children, especially those of minorities, use books as a means of self-affirmation. Having a relatable character in a book helps children with self-esteem issues because it affirms that they are “normal” and special (Bishop). The same goes for children with alternative lifestyles such as living in a foster home or having gay parents. Seeing a character living a life similar to their own causes children to value their home life more. When over 100 teenagers were asked how they feel when they read a book with a character that shares their race or ethnicity, the most popular answer by far was that they “can relate” or “feel a connection” (Diversity in Literature Survey). Children of minorities are so used to feeling different and left out among their peers that a book with a similar character to themselves provides immense relief. It tells them they are normal and can be just like their peers. Books have the power to change lives (NPR). For example, when Annie on My Mind was published in 1982, it was life-changing for so many young girls. It showed them that it is okay to be a lesbian– that they can fall in love and have romantic courtships like the straight characters that they are used to seeing. If minority characters are not included in children’s literature, white children will become the “picture of normal” (Adichie).
Diversity in children’s literature increases more than just self-esteem; it educates children on different cultures and promotes equality and tolerance. Because of the naivete and willingness of the child’s mind, reading about new cultures makes them feel more normal rather than abstract to children. A lot of people have single stories of places and cultures that are unfamiliar to them (Adichie). Getting inside the head of a character different from oneself normalizes that character’s culture and home life; there are few better ways to learn about a culture than from someone who lives that culture. Diverse books teach kids belonging and acceptance (Sargeant). A good book that accurately represents an unfamiliar culture can broaden a child’s perspective of the world and their peers. Studies show that reading books with different dialects can broaden how English is spoken is America (Bishop). Kids also develop more positive attitudes towards their own culture and race when presented with books with similar characters (Gillespie). A large problem that prevents Americans from having the knowledge of other cultures that people have in other countries is their general hatred of being wrong (Paul). By reading books with different cultures, readers are respectfully, sometimes unknowingly, receiving a cultural education–especially if the characters in said books challenge stereotypes that have already been presented through other forms of media such as movies and tv shows. Ann Morgan, a writer from London who dedicated a year reading books from every single country in the world, argues that more books need to be translated into English for a full, unbiased understanding of world cultures (“Reading a book”). People of minorities are desperate to share their cultures; it is such an important part of their lives. Books are a perfect outlet. Growing up being aware of different cultures raises children to be more tolerant and inclusive. An extremely successful program at Fairmont State University in West Virginia is devoted to doing exactly this. The goal of the project is to “help children build self-esteem and embrace diversity through a love of reading” (McNamara). In addition to the tremendous success of this program, studies show that reading decreases prejudice and increases empathy (Kleinfeld). So many individuals all over the world use writing as a means of communication. Literature from different countries encourages cross-cultural communication, the key to acceptance (Dar). Having knowledge of a culture makes it easier to accept and recognize said culture.
Children are truly not given enough credit for what their minds can do. They have the ability to transform stereotypical scripts to be more understanding and inclusive. It is not uncommon for a child to insert themselves into a book that does not have concrete race descriptions. In the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, Harry and Hermione were never given specific races–it is the movies that projected sudden whiteness on the characters (Berlatsky). Learning about different cultures’ struggles and traditions helps develop empathy in children. In addition, children become aware of key concepts such as privilege through books where characters make the same discoveries, such as the young adult novel The Inside of Out, in which the main character is educated about white privilege by her friend. (Thorne). Contrary to popular belief, children do enjoy learning. They are “naturally curious” and have a need to discover the world around them (Hunt). Tying in education to reading makes children enjoy reading more, making them more caring people.
Discovering new cultures through reading taps into a child’s natural desire to learn while promoting their love of reading. Students associate positive feelings with books when they can relate to them (Diversity in Literature Survey). If a child is more likely to reach for a book with a character that looks like themself on the cover, they are more likely to reach for a book in general. Noah Cho, a middle school teacher in San Francisco, fills his class curriculum with nothing but culturally diverse titles every year. As a result, his students become more self-sure and confident–and their grades raise (Cho). A group of librarians surveyed unanimously agreed that the children in their programs would be more enthusiastic readers if they saw themselves in books (PR Newswire). Also, diverse books provide a challenging reading experience for particularly younger readers, being overall enjoyable. It can be a struggle for children to grasp onto new cultures, but the overall result is a well educated child who enjoys reading more. For example, learning about history through a minority perspective that it not taught in schools can give kids insight and bring forth new ideas on historical events. Children use books to escape reality (“Children’s Fantasy Literature”). Reading about different types of people provides a fundamentally different reading experience than real life, where the only glimpse into other’s lives comes from what they offer up. Every culture has a huge array of stories: folklore, mythology, religious stories–the variety is endless. As Rudine Sims Bishop so eloquently stated in one of her most famous essays, children need “windows” onto other cultures, “mirrors” onto their own lives, and “sliding glass doors” to escape into other worlds and experiences (“Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors”).
The lack of diversity in the children’s literature field is a huge problem because the self-esteem of children revolves around the feeling of “normality,” a sensation that can come from seeing oneself in books. Children who are represented in books also suffer from the lack of cultural education and true depth to their books. All children are at risk for misunderstandings and potentially harmful assumptions because of stereotypically portrayed characters of minorities. This problem can only be solved if publishers, teachers, librarians, and readers work together and share their experiences with discrimination to change the industry.
(Works Cited available upon request.)