Books are a tool parents can use to shape a child’s view of the world.
Recently, I took my little one to our local public library. I love letting her explore the shelves. As we browsed, a White woman walked up next to us and picked up a picture book with a colorful cover. Our eyes met in a brief, very awkward moment. She held the book just a second before putting it down to continue her browsing. I smiled to myself. I recognized the book, because I checked it out last month. It’s a good story, but one with a point of view and social context that is distinctly African American.
I am not making a judgment about why the woman passed on that particular book. Our awkward interaction got me thinking about the calls for diverse books. The absence of diverse characters in children’s picture books cheats all children. Yes, White children, too.
Much of the discourse on the need for greater diversity in children’s books focuses on the importance of this diversity for children of color. Because children’s books teach by picture, focus, and story, children far more often than not are taught that White is normative, “average” and the “default” experience. It is communicated early and often. It is reinforced through books, media imagery and other “cultural artifacts”. This damaging historical song repeats through cartoons and merchandise that glorify White worlds and White physical features. So for children of color, seeing themselves in books powerfully reinforces their identity.
Diversity in children’s books presents a more nuanced but equally important learning opportunity for White children that include:
- Exposure to a world full of wonderful (and different) cultural experiences, filled with people who are often different from those beyond their immediate social networks. The growing interdependence of the world will require increasing adaptability as younger generations become tomorrow’s adults.
- Framing racial and cultural difference as routine and normative – because changing demographics guarantee this is what the future will look like. In some communities, the future is now.
- Encouraging White children to recognize the many things they share in common with children of color: what makes them laugh, what makes them sad, what they like to do for fun, what they hope to be as grownups. These become bases for friendships. A recent survey found that 75% of Whites (as a racial group) have social networks with “no minority presence.” It is never too early for Whites to begin to change this isolation.
Introducing diverse children’s books doesn’t have to be a big discussion on race. Most questions can be answered by framing difference as a positive.
Some tangible places to start:
- Search books featured on this blog.
- Search #WeNeedDiverseBooks on Twitter or Instagram. People post book suggestions daily.
- Search weneediversebooks.tumblr.com
Posted: February 24, 2015