High Walls, Closed Borders: A Golden Age of Children’s Literature is Not Here Yet
How the West’s global children’s book empire continues to enable racist, imperialist and harmful nationalist agendas.
Last year, Newberry Award-winning American children’s author Matt de la Peña wrote an article in Time Magazine in which he stated that “we are currently in a golden age of picture books, with a tremendous range to choose from.” The article was much discussed and lauded for its thoughtful insistence that children’s books must not shield children from darkness. Few seemed to notice the moral darkness of de la Peña’s claim of a golden age. It’s the type of claim that erases people of color and our perennial omission from children’s books from the equation; ironically, de la Peña made the claim a paragraph after affirming “the power of racial inclusion.”
It’s also the type of claim that only certain white or “honorary white” people living within the rarefied air of the “First World” make. The fact is, not everyone has had the luxury of choice and range when it comes to picture books in particular, and children’s books more broadly. Walk through any bookstore or library, wherever in the world you happen to be, and it quickly becomes clear that the moral darkness of an “all-white world of children’s books” — reading education pioneer Nancy Larrick’s now famous truism — is something we cannot shield children from even if we tried.
Declarations of our current “golden age of children’s literature” are on the rise. In 2015, Bruce Handy announced in the Wall Street Journal that “we are living through an extended golden age for children’s books, a product of America’s astonishing prosperity — and growing child-centeredness — in the long postwar era.” A truer, more apt assessment would be “America’s growing self-centeredness.” The fact is, America’s gains — too often ill-gotten — have depended on our monopolistic expansion into most global markets, including the multi-million-dollar international children’s book market, creating worldwide economic disparities that make it virtually impossible for children’s publishing industries outside the “First World” to thrive.
Not only do children’s publishers in the so-called “Third World” face insurmountable commercial and legal barriers to market entry; they are also hampered by insidious racist mindsets toward children of color, the very act of reading, and children’s books themselves, mindsets fossilized between the deep-set layers of imperialist overcultures. This petrification of the children’s publishing industries of the “Third World” is a dismal consequence of the long and ongoing history of the children’s book as a powerful tool of Western imperialism and colonization.
Amanda Craig, writing in The Independent in 2015, explained “Why this is a golden age for children’s literature” and cemented her argument in a lengthy and all-too-typical panegyric on mostly white British and American authors whose works have gilded the firmament of the children’s literary canon. Her article perfectly represents the age-old outlook of the Western literary establishment whose entrenched idea of the children’s literature corpus all but ignores legacies of writing for children from the, apparently de minimis, “rest of the world.” Craig also reassures us that “racism has become completely unacceptable” in children’s literature today, suggesting that we have achieved some sort of post-racial nirvana.
In February 2018, the National Parent Teachers Association of America endorsed the golden age claim in its flagship publication, in an article written by Jake Ball. He defined a golden age as “a period when the art is at its peak and relevant to a wide audience,” and proclaimed that “never before have written works for children been produced at the volume, consistency and quality than what is in print today.” Both the definition of a golden age and the gloating report of plenitude ring hollow when yearly statistics from America and from the UK show that children’s books that are culturally and racially relevant to non-white and non-“First World” audiences are still published in oppressively low quantities.
Western commentators who speak of golden ages of children’s literature fall back on that long-standing bulwark of white privilege: color blindness.
Imogen Russell Williams, writing in The Times Literary Supplement in 2017, contended that although “many mediocre and bad books for children are published now,” as they always have been, this is a golden age since “the best children’s authors, however, are writing lucid, inventive, vivid, entertaining and terrifying books, playing with form and cutting the fat of meandering, indulgent description.” Based on the books Russell Williams cited, it is safe to conclude that she believes “the best children’s authors” are the mostly white “First World” authors who, favored by the capitalistic and culturally/racially rigged systems of publishing and book selling, are value managed to the top of “mainstream” bestseller lists. It is possible she was also thinking of the exceedingly few children’s writers of color in and outside of the “First World” who, heroically managing to break the back-breaking color bar of the Western children’s publishing-industrial complex, need to be “twice as good” as white authors, and write books that fit a white industry’s narrow expectations of writing by people of color, in order to be admitted to the literary ranks of honor.
Williams lucidly allows that children’s publishing (and I would add young adult publishing) has a high tolerance for mediocre books, but expresses absolutely no compunction about how “mainstream” publishing lavishly extends that tolerance for mediocrity overwhelmingly to white “First World” writers, thereby severely limiting the number of publishing contracts left available for the best non-white and non-“First World” children’s writers. When such hidebound, segregationist pieties persist in the halls of publishing, not to mention other dominant bastions of literary culture, how can a universal golden age of children’s books even be insinuated?
Because here is the unavoidable fact: golden ages of children’s literature have never been universal. Golden ages of children’s literature, whenever they have been proclaimed, theorized, or historicized, have never included regions of the world outside of the white Global North, specifically Europe, North America and New Zealand. To uphold any such periodization is to posture universality, casting aside the inconvenient truth that while white children in the “First World” have been allowed more than their fair share in childhood’s literary goldmine, most of the world’s non-white children have been denied their equal stake. Western commentators who speak of golden ages of children’s literature fall back on that long-standing bulwark of white privilege: color blindness.
In 1962, the term “The Golden Age of Children’s Literature” was coined by British children’s author Roger Lancelyn Green to refer to children’s books published in the UK between 1865 to 1926, which is to say, during the Victorian era. (In the decades since Green first used the term, perhaps due to the special relationship between British and American literary historians/historians of education, American children’s books published during the same era — books like Peter Pan and Little Women — came to be included in this prototypical “Golden Age.”) It is no surprise that people of color rarely appeared in those “Golden Age” children’s books, except as taken-for-granted racist caricatures, since prevailing Victorian-era attitudes toward people of color placed them in the default categories of “primitives” and “savages”, in keeping with Britain’s worldwide imperialist project.
And yet it is this Victorian-era archetype of a “golden age” that still carries the imprimatur of Western centers of literary power, and that has allowed a racist conception of “canon-worthy” children’s literature to reverberate throughout the ages. Those who see in today’s children’s book trends evidence of a “golden age” are repeating the grave error of Victorian-era denialism: that of making racism invisible and upholding a racist norm.
Claims of a new golden age of children’s literature are being touted in “First World” publications, so one might be tempted to excuse their insularity, but many of these publications have global circulations and global captive audiences. Surely Americans — and Europeans likewise — are aware that our major print and online publications are distributed to and read by many around the world. One wonders then at the blinkered carelessness of the golden age talk coming from “First World” quarters. What the claims all have in common is that those making them do so from comfortable ivory tower perches, disingenuously countenancing a world where white supremacy and Eurocentrism are par for the course. Children’s literature’s golden age apologists are content believing that the achievements of white authors in “First World” countries are the only relevant yardsticks in repertoires of literary excellence. They would ignore children’s literature’s historical role in the Euro-American imperialization of the world; indeed, they would ignore the rest of the world to begin with.
In recent years, the growth of Chinese children’s books, enabled by China’s growing economic ascendancy, prompted Chinese children’s literary theorist Zhu Ziqiang to herald a golden age of Chinese children’s literature, but children in other parts of Asia, and in Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America — regions of the world most adversely affected by “First World” capitalist excess, to which the children’s publishing industry is by no means immune — have yet to enjoy such literary affluence and relevance. “Goldenness” in children’s literature is euphemism for “First Word” and “white” and always has been. As such, unless we expand the prevailing notion of epochal goldenness to include “blackness,” and “brownness”, and every other possible shade and locale of humanity, there is simply no room for a regenesis of the so-called “Golden Age of Children’s Literature.”
The children’s literature on which previous generations were raised must be implicated in the dangerous ideological movements that have repeatedly characterized the current era, including the latest scourge of fascist, nativist and far-right movements sweeping the globe.
Recently, the diversity problem in children’s literature (i.e., the marked under-publishing of narratives about non-white groups, written by non-white authors) has been foregrounded by the high-profile We Need Diverse Books and #OwnVoices movements which advocate hopefully toward a future where golden ages of literature and human diversity are not mutually exclusive; however, these diversity movements have emerged from within America and remain starkly Americentric. More skin tones and languages are ever so slowly appearing on the pages of children’s books, but libraries, classrooms and bookstores all over the world are still glutted with American children’s books, the result of America’s long coin-operated arm of capitalist imperialism.
Despite their underplayed but indisputable status as global hegemons, the “mainstream” children’s publishing industries of the West, and their conversations about diversity, remain dangerously parochial and self-regarding, insouciant to the millions of structurally imperialized readers around the world who have had, and continue to have, no choice but to buy and read American and European children’s books. Forged in an ever deepening “First World” bourgeois echo chamber, with little awareness of, or moral accountability to, its international captive markets, the “First World” children’s publishing industrial-complex has historically proven itself exceedingly vulnerable to the same time bombs of white chauvinism and ethnic nepotism currently erupting in political landscapes across the world. This is not hyperbole but fact borne out by scholarship and statistics on racial and cultural politics in children’s books and the demonstrably clannish industries that produce and appraise these books. Any person of color or “Third World” citizen who has moved within children’s literature circles for any significant amount of time can attest to regular experiences of marginalization.
For too long, the role of children’s literature in profoundly shaping the thinking and values of each new generation, and influencing the zeitgeist, has not been fully grasped or appreciated. The sanitized and ‘innocent’ veneer of children’s books makes it only too easy to depoliticize them and underrate their function as some of the most powerful tools of mass ideology and subtle social engineering. Yet there is more than enough scholarly evidence to suggest that the children’s literature on which previous generations were raised must be implicated in the dangerous ideological movements that have repeatedly characterized the current era, including the latest scourge of fascist, nativist and far-right movements sweeping the globe.
As long as the world’s children are raised within systems of enculturation and literary transmission that protect the status quo of sectarianism and inequality — which is to say as long as entire generations grow up reading books that conflate the very idea of childhood, collective memory and the human story with white, “First World” exceptionalism — we can expect the historical cycle of white chauvinist and nationalist backlashes to continue indefinitely for generations to come, with all the unspeakable havoc they wreak. To refuse to acknowledge the immense psychological, social and political role of children’s literature in the cycle of human history is to embrace a fatal myopia.
The role that “First World” privilege plays in minority group authors’ access to traditional publishing is another troubling but little-discussed phenomenon spawned by the West’s global children’s book empire. “First World” privilege is the reason Indian-descended authors who are UK residents — many of whom weren’t born or raised in India — get coveted Western children’s publishing contracts to write stories set in India at a higher rate than Indian denizens themselves. “First World” privilege explains why, in the West, so-called “Filipino” children’s book samplers (book lists, library displays etc.) mostly highlight books authored by and featuring Filipino-Americans without any acknowledgment of the very important distinction between a geographical region and its diaspora. It is “First World” privilege that emboldens North American publishers to ask Caribbean-American “experts” to vet children’s books set in the Caribbean, and write cover blurbs for those books, completely bypassing the local expertise offered by perfectly intelligent and qualified people living in the Caribbean itself who would provide markedly different insights as “sensitivity readers.”
It is easy to say that literary success must be earned through personal effort but the fact is, a children’s author’s success also depends on access to resources and social capital, including but not limited to professional development opportunities, publishing contracts, overseas markets, literary prizes, professional in-group membership, publishing industry conversations, and popular/literary press coverage. The granting of such access to minority children’s writers living in the “First World” (although still slight compared to white “First World” authors), but not to children’s writers in the “Third World” countries that those same minority writers write about and trace their heritage to, perfectly demonstrates the nativist, “divide and conquer” programming of neocolonialism. This unchallenged industry practice is a silent embargo imposed on the “Third World” children’s writer who, in the world of mainstream Western publishing, remains a sort of persona non grata.
Making “diversity movements” like the #OwnVoices movement true in spirit, not just in form, requires that both the popular press and “First World” children’s publishers stop incentivizing select non-white residents of the “First World” — an elite group of “exceptional immigrants” — to speak, and tell stories, on behalf of marginalized peoples the world over. The Americentric and Eurocentric tokenizing of these “exceptional immigrants” by the media industries of the “First World” merely entrenches “First World” privilege deeper and deeper within the global cultural economy, and furthers the balkanization of the world’s non-white cultures.
America currently has a President who is fond of building walls and pushes a draconian border policy. The media elite of mostly white liberals who run America’s children’s publishing industry are quick to protest the separation of immigrant families at the American border, but much less prepared to recognize that their industry’s discriminatory “policies” and global soft power are responsible for the equally inhumane segregation of the human family as played out along the tightly-patrolled borders of children’s literature.
It is beyond time for “First World” children’s publishing industries to expand the borders of their inclusivity, to recognize the rest of the world’s children as human beings with stories in desperate need of telling, rather than markets to dominate and exploit in the name of the almighty dollar. Now is the time to widen forever children’s literature’s window of discourse, to let in the voices, stories, opinions and world cultures that have long been shut out. Now is the time for literature to once and for all lift the iron curtain between Western childhoods and childhoods everywhere else, to fully and unapologetically expose the fundamentally anti-democratic workings of the West’s global children’s book empire, to insist on a democratized telling of childhood as a universal right and exigency. We must unflaggingly disrupt all manifestations of a censorship society that fails to include, involve, represent and humanize everyone in the republic of literature.
The real human potential of children’s literature cannot be achieved, and golden ages of children’s literature will never be a universal proposition enjoyed by all, as long as children’s writers all over the world have to contend with this most slavish and Herculean of labors: scaling the towering white wall of the “First World.”
Summer Edward, M.S.Ed is a Trinidad-born American writer, educator and children’s editor. For more information, visit her website: www.summeredward.com