How diverse are the books we read our children?

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"Crossover," by Kwame Alexander
"Crossover," by Kwame Alexander

“Crossover,” by Kwame Alexander

This story from Jane Henderson at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch had me wondering about my own reading habits with my children.

More children’s books featured African-Americans last year, but it may be too early to applaud any real change in publishing.

The number of books written by or about African-Americans almost doubled last year to 179, according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin. In 2013, the number was 93 out of about 5,000 trade books published.

The publications featuring Asian/Pacific or Asian/Pacific Americans also went up, from 69 to 112. The center also counted slightly more books about Latinos and American Indians.

So why aren’t people more excited about an increase in multicultural materials for children?

The numbers of African-American books don’t show steady growth, for one thing. 2013 was a very low year. So 2014 looks better, but it actually recorded only 7 books more than in 2008. And in 2001, there were more books about African-Americans: 201.

So an online post in School Library Journal says that over 25 years, “the diversity balance in children’s literature has remained stagnant overall.”

See a chart on that page showing the ups and downs in multicultural children’s books.

The Cooperative Children’s Book Center concludes that “what the low numbers for multicultural literature mean is that publishing for children and teens has a long way to go before reflecting the rich diversity of perspectives and experiences within and across race and culture.”

One of the reasons often given for the low numbers of multicultural books published is that book sellers do not think they make money.

A quick check of the online Barnes & Noble and Amazon stores show that “The Crossover” by Kwame Alexander, which won the Newbery Award this month, was out of stock on both websites. The book about an African-American boy was ranked 41 overall on B&N and is among the top 10 for middle grade books on The New York Times best-seller list.

"The Snowy Day" by Ezra Jack Keats.

“The Snowy Day” by Ezra Jack Keats.

I know that my kids were read very few books with diversity. “Whistle for Willie” and “The Snowy Day” were the exceptions, rather than the rule. I never even really thought about it. What does that say about me and the books that were around us?

Of course, know that I look back at what I was reading to them, most of the books actually featured animals and not people: all the Eric Carle books, the Arthur series, Sandra Boynton’s hilarious board books and the Little Critters books. They were all animals and a diverse group from caterpillars to sheep and dogs, guinea pigs??? and an aardvark that looked more like a mouse. Were they black or Hispanic or Asian? Probably not, but they weren’t all the same either.

"The Very Hungry Caterpillar" by Eric Carle

“The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle


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