This post was originally going to be about "beauty" in children's books. Inspired by Lupita Nyong'o's speech at the Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon, I wanted to talk about picture books that tell children they are beautiful in real ways, like My People, Me Frida, Flora and the Flamingo or Jingle Dancer.
But then I was invited to appear, Monday morning, on KQED's Forum program for a panel discussion on why people of color are underpresented in children's books. According to statistics collected by the Cooperative Children's Book Center at UW Madison, a disproportinately small number of children's books each year are by, or about, people of color. Why is this the case? And why hasn't it changed? I started my studies in this profession exactly 20 years ago, and we were having this exact same conversation....and it wasn't new then either.
I invite you to listen to the podcast of the Forum program. It felt like the conversation had just gotten started there. We started asking how can we leverage the market to create a demand--in dollars--that publishing houses and big box bookstores will respond to. One of my colleagues alerted me to The Birthday Party Pledge: committing to give multicultural books to the children in her life for one year. She started recently, headed to a 4-year-old birthday party, and stopped at a local independent bookstore in Oakland to select a book. She could not find one book in stock that was age appropriate and featured any children of color. Not one. She settled on Jerry Pinkney's The Lion and the Mouse; a beautiful book that highlights another symptom of the problem, as Pinkeny is only the second African-American ever to win a Caldecott Medal. (Others have been awarded a Caldecott Honor, but still too few. Listen to the Forum program for my thoughts on that.)
If we'd had a few more minutes on the program, I would have wanted to say: not every individual book has to do everything for everyone. But the body of work that we create, produce, buy, and read for our children--the best of children's books--must be better at addressing all of its readership. Kids read and respond to things they identify with, and things that are different, in books--helping them craft their identity by reflecting it, and expanding it. Kids also start to build prejudices from what they see in the world, and in books, from a very early age. What kinds of experiences are we denying children of all kinds by not showing them experiences of all kinds in their literature?
This is everyone's responsibility. What can you do? Think about it when you're choosing books for kids (your kids, your classroom, a present, donations to the Oakland Mayor's Toy Drive, whatever!) and ask for it. That's a start.
Which book do you want to share?