Why Multicultural Books are Essential for All Young Children
America’s children are in pressing need of books that will give them back their souls. — Langston Hughes, 1932
Picture a young child curled up on her parent’s lap with a storybook — a familiar and beloved ritual in American culture. Yet, when only a fraction of children’s books published in the U.S. are created by or about people of color, families find it difficult to experience culturally authentic stories.
One might assume that only children of color would stand to benefit from diverse books. In reality, multicultural storytelling promotes positive racial identity development and reduces racial bias among all children of all races. What’s more, within an increasingly diverse society, it is critical that parents actively seek out cross-cultural children’s books and engage in healthy conversations with their children about race and identity.
The Movement for Diverse Children’s Literature
People of color have long been underrepresented or misrepresented in American children’s literature. In an effort to address this inequity, in 1920 W. E. B. Du Bois conceived The Brownies’ Book, the first magazine dedicated to publishing content particularly for African-American children (Brooks and McNair 141–2).
Although the periodical only ran for 23 months, it provided a sharp contrast to many of the negative, demoralizing stereotypes found in mainstream children’s books. Within the pages of The Brownies’ Book, uplifting storytelling and imagery “celebrated African American identity, urged racial pride, and encouraged its young readers to aspire to positions of leadership within their communities” (Center for Digital Research in the Humanities). Other efforts to promote literature for children of color during the Harlem Renaissance shared Du Bois’ vision, although none gained lasting attention (Smith). Still, these endeavors led to a growing inventory of multicultural literature.
The next catalyst for change happened in 1965 with Nancy Larrick’s highly publicized “The All-White World of Children’s Books.” Circulated in The Saturday Review of Books, Larrick’s article brought widespread awareness to the disparity in book publishing and, with it, new energy to diversify books for children. As a result, within the next decade, the Council on Interracial Books for Children and the Coretta Scott King Award were both established (Gopalakrishnan 26). Despite the significance of these events, progress was slow. The majority of new children’s books continued to reinforce the dominant values and perspectives of privileged Anglo Americans and promote a homogeneous cultural narrative.
Without question, the landmark research of Rudine Sims Bishop in 1990 has done more to shape discourse among scholars and educators than any other contemporary work. Sims Bishop, in her essay “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors,” sets forth a masterful case, advocating for the availability of multicultural literature for all children. Using the metaphors of mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors, she describes how, through books, children need to see themselves reflected back (like mirrors), gaze forth into an unfamiliar landscape (windows), and be able to enter a world different from their own (sliding glass doors). She points out how underrepresented communities experience a scarcity of mirrors: “When children cannot find themselves in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part” (“Mirrors” ix). Sims Bishop goes on to assert how this literary void not only harms Black or other children of color, but White children too:
Children from dominant social groups have always found their mirrors in books, but they, too, have suffered from the lack of availability of books about others. They need the books as windows onto reality, not just on imaginary worlds… In this country, where racism is still one of the major unresolved social problems, books may be one of the few places where children who are socially isolated and insulated from the larger world may meet people unlike themselves. If they see only reflections of themselves, they will grow up with an exaggerated sense of their own importance and value in the world — a dangerous ethnocentrism. (“Mirrors” x)
Indeed, Sims Bishop’s influential research has stimulated discussion among educators and publishing industry professionals over the past 25 years. A growing awareness of the importance of multicultural children’s literature has inspired the establishment of independent publishers focusing on diversity and empowering new authors and illustrators of color to share their stories. One such publisher, Lee and Low, tracks data provided by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center to document the diversity gap. Their infographic, “The Diversity Gap in Children’s Books,” demonstrates how, from 1994 to 2016, the percentage of books published in the U.S. containing multicultural content has hovered at a mere 11% each year. Of that percentage, an even smaller fraction of books has been written or illustrated by people of color, or “cultural insiders.”
Awareness around this issue spiked again in March 2014 with two opinion pieces in the News York Times’ Sunday Review on “Where are the people of color in children’s books?” written by father-son authors, Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers. In April and May 2014, awareness continued to increase as novelists Ellen Oh, Aisha Saeed, and Malinda Lo took up the mantle and generated stimulating conversations on social media with the hashtag campaign #weneeddiversebooks. These efforts evolved into We Need Diverse Books, a non-profit organization, which “offers awards, grants, and mentorships for authors, internships aimed at making the industry more inclusive, and tools for promoting diverse books” (Slater).
Even in an increasingly diverse U.S. context and despite a growing awareness of the scarcity of diverse books, the mainstream publishing industry continues to lag behind. One might wonder if we do not understand what is at stake here. This brings us to the question: why does multicultural literature for all children matter?
Benefits for Children of All Races
Scholarship in the fields of psychology and early childhood education unequivocally affirms the power of multicultural narratives to cultivate healthy racial identity development and also decrease racial bias among young children.
Development of positive racial identity
“Who and what can be seen? What images will children see when they open the books in their classrooms, libraries, and homes? Will they see themselves? Will they see an unrealistic all-white or predominantly white world? Will they see untrue images of their own culture?” (Horning and Kruse 10).
We have already established that all children need a variety of “mirrors,” “windows,” and “sliding glass doors.” From an early age, children are realizing their own racial identities and beginning to make sense of the world. In this critical developmental stage, the positive effects of “mirror” books for children of color are well-documented. Benefits include heightened self-esteem and racial pride (“Reframing the debate” 25), as well as a greater enthusiasm and love for reading (Brooks and McNair 144). Furthermore, the benefits of multicultural literature extend to children of every race, including Whites. If White children rarely encounter any characters of color in the books they read, they falsely understand White to be the default, normal existence, and everyone else must be different. As a result, this “gives them a misleading conception of their relationship with other racial and ethnic groups and denies them the opportunity to benefit from the knowledge, perspective, and frames of references that can be gained from studying and experiencing other cultures and groups” (Banks 190).
Throughout history, books have served as cultural artifacts, imbued with the power to transmit values and messages through words and images. Yet even 21st-century children’s books do not accurately portray our richly diverse nation. Therefore, American children’s potential for healthy racial identity development is impeded. As recently as 2015, a study showed that “children who interact with current picture books predominantly see White faces and receive the message that… to be White is to be better. Finding books depicting non-White characters, particularly books depicting culturally specific elements, is rare” (Koss 37).One cannot underestimate the influence of books in the hands of children. The interweaving of words and images in children’s literature transmits cultural values. “How we use language constructs who we are as people, as cultures, and as a society. Language circulates the dominant ideologies of gender, race, and class” (Botelho and Rudman 2).
Even as we acknowledge how the language and images within books are important, a preponderance of today’s children’s books fail to provide a forum for healthy dialogue about race. “There is a lot of silence about race in White communities, and as a consequence Whites tend to think of racial identity as something that other people have, not something that is salient for them” (Tatum 94). Racial identity continues to impact all American children. It is the water in which we swim. Ignoring race and/or remaining silent about it does not exempt anyone from the very real experience of living in a racialized society. In fact, when children’s books are not culturally diverse, children miss the opportunity to embrace a more egalitarian worldview and are not equipped with the words or practice necessary to converse and collaborate with one another across racial divides.
Reduction in bias
Stories with captivating characters have long been known to evoke empathy among readers. Indeed, children make personal connections as they respond to characters’ thoughts, feelings, and intentions (Martinez et al.). The medium of children’s picture books holds particular potential for reducing bias in children from a young age. More specifically, diverse picture books serve to: (1) confront negative stereotypes and (2) promote cross-racial friendships as a normal part of life.
Diverse narratives dispute harmful stereotypes through “counter-storytelling,” thus breaking down barriers between people groups and correcting misunderstandings (Koss 33). In this way, multicultural children’s literature can do more than simply celebrate or represent a culture; these books can actually challenge the status quo. Brooks and McNair explain that when children’s books call into question “culturally unauthentic depictions,” they have the power to “counter hegemony by provoking discussion about systemic forms of injustice and oppression” (130). Children keenly detect when situations are unfair or unequal, so when they are exposed to multicultural narratives, children and adults have the opportunity to discuss the realities of racism and other forms of oppression in an age-appropriate manner. Glossing over racial conflict or remaining silent about these issues is not a productive strategy for parents and caregivers who want to raise children with minimal bias. In fact, openly discussing race with children can correct faulty assumptions about racial differences (Bigler and Liben). Diverse books provide a natural entry point for engaging these complex conversations.
Books can promote a fully integrated society in other ways, as well. An encouraging study by psychologist Krista Aronson and her colleagues finds that children respond very positively when picture books include visual examples of cross-racial friendships (whether through illustrations or photographs). “When we see someone like us doing something with someone different from us, we become more open to doing it ourselves. Psychologists call this vicarious contact. It can ease children’s anxiety about interacting across difference because they have seen that it’s really fun” (Aronson). Literature allows children to see that cross-racial friendships are possible. It has a very humanizing effect where children can find their places as members of a richly diverse and connected family (Harris). As children grow more comfortable and curious about making friends outside their racial groups — in part because they’ve seen these friendships modeled by book characters — they are likely to gravitate toward forming these cross-racial friendships in real life. In turn, “having more cross-race friends can promote more positive racial attitudes and also lowers feelings of discomfort when interacting with people of a different race” (Douglass et al).
Cultural Authenticity and Curation
Having identified the benefits of engaging multicultural literature with young children, we now arrive at the need for parents and caregivers to select books based on their cultural authenticity.
A book’s cultural authenticity depends on the absence of racial stereotypes as a minimum standard. Going further, cultural authenticity also refers to the “presence of values consistent with a particular culture” as well as “the accuracy of cultural details in text and illustrations” (Yoo-Lee, EunYoung, et al.). If parents and caregivers hope to improve racial inclusion and cross-cultural understanding among young children, their commitment to seeking out culturally authentic narratives is crucial.
Selecting culturally authentic books requires a working knowledge of what criteria ensure a book is representing race with sensitivity and accuracy. Often, the contributions of authors and illustrators who are cultural insiders (i.e., those who belong to the same racial group as the characters being portrayed in the story), amplify the cultural authenticity of a story. When a reliable cultural insider is not the author or illustrator of the book, certain race-conscious publishers have adopted the practice of consulting people who identify with the in-group to obtain their feedback. For example, Lee and Low explains its process:
Our motto as a publisher is ‘about everyone, for everyone.’ This is accomplished by first seeking out voices from underrepresented communities so they can speak for themselves, of course. But when we are publishing a book by someone from outside a community, good craft demands that we consult members of the community for review. (Whitman)
Although no comprehensive checklist exists, parents can use their personal judgment and critically employ several best practices to verify cultural authenticity. The National Center on Cultural and Linguistic Responsiveness has published recommendations on how to check books for stereotypes and bias. These recommendations offer a good starting place:
- First, one should consider the overall message of the story and its context. Who is the author? When was it written? Does it promote respect and inclusion? What are the power dynamics? Are the characters presented as real, rounded human beings, as opposed to two-dimensional (hero/exceptional or victim/oppressed)? Are members of different racial/cultural groups depicted only as enemies or are there examples of mutuality and collaboration?
- Secondly, books should be examined for their cultural merit as evidenced in their written content and illustrations. The Center suggests that parents “weigh the words” to look for any problematic labeling (e.g., words like “lazy” or “savage”) or the misuse or mockery of dialect or language. Sweeping racial or cultural generalizations should be avoided in which all people in a certain group are made out to share universal values or behaviors.
- Finally, when flipping through the book’s pages, parents are encouraged to watch out for illustrations that exaggerate the physical features of any racial group or show people in modern stories in traditional dress (unless they are participating in a festival appropriate to the story).
These are only a few of the safeguards against stereotypes that parents can put into practice when selecting diverse stories for their children.
Curating a book collection
Whether purchased from a bookstore or checked out from the public library, obtaining culturally authentic children’s books to be read at home is vitally important. As one of the most respected experts in the field, Sims Bishop’s four classifications of diverse children’s literature remain the gold standard for building a multicultural library (“Children’s books in a multicultural world”). Rather than choosing books in only one category or another, parents are encouraged to choose a variety of books within all four categories:
1. Consciously interracial, in which diverse interactions project a vision of a multicultural society.
2. People are people, in which people of color are featured, but are not culturally distinct from the dominant group.
3. Distinctive experience, in which the author celebrates or recognizes distinctive values, language patterns, etc.
4. Coping with racism and discrimination, in which historical and contemporary examples of racial adversity are narrated by multidimensional characters.
Despite the persistent scarcity of children’s books by authors and illustrators of color, it is crucial for parents and caregivers to intentionally seek out diverse books for their young children. Multicultural narratives support the development of positive racial identities and reduce racial bias among children of all races. Within the pages of diverse storybooks lies the potential for children to actualize meaningful cross-cultural relationships.
Research paper written by Kelsey Johnson for Spring 2018 Diversity Studies (DVST 5310) at Texas State University.
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