I’ve thought a lot about the 2018 Diversity in Children’s Books infographic since it was published in June 2019. I put together a Twitter thread about my thoughts on it this past spring, but given the important conversations we’re having (i.e., finally paying attention to) about diverse representation in publishing, I wanted to share my thoughts here, as well.
The graphic is a visual representation showing the diversity of characters depicted in children’s books published in 2018. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC—School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison) reviewed 3,134 books published in 2018 and found the following demographics for primary characters:
- 50% (1558 books) – White
- 27% (864) – Animals/Other (think talking cars)
- 10% (301) – African/African American
- 7% (218) – Asian Pacific Islander/Asian Pacific American
- 5% (170) – Latinx
- 1% (23) – American Indians/First Nations
My first question when I saw the graphic was, “I wonder how this compares to U.S. demographics?” If, for example, only one percent of the children in the U.S. are Native American, does it make sense that they be represented in only one percent of the books?
Put simply, no.
Striving for representation that equals demographic numbers in the U.S. is still a failure for underrepresented children by the publishing industry. I think the simplest way to explain why is through a scenario, so, here we go.
Let’s say we have a group of one hundred 4th graders that’s representative of approximate U.S. demographics (2018 est.) with sixty-one white, eighteen Latinx, thirteen Black, and six Asian-American children, one Pacific Islander/Native Hawaiian child and one Native American/First Nation child. Note that the Asian American and Pacific Islander/Native Hawaiian groups are merged in the diversity graphic, so I’ll group them together here. Also, the demographic chart I used isn’t broken down by age groups. Younger generations are diversifying but not to a degree that’s wildly different, so these numbers will work for our purpose.
Now, let’s take our class to a book fair where there are hundreds of copies each of one hundred different titles in which character representation follows the CCBC graphic, to include twenty-seven titles that feature animals or objects as the main characters. Each child in our class gets to pick out ten books.
Our sixty-one white children will have no problem finding books that feature characters who look like them. In fact, they have fifty choices, which means each child can pick out ten books with white character representation and still have forty more to come back to. Maybe not all of those books will be well-written or free of harmful representation, but with over fifty to choose from, they have excellent odds of picking out ten books with inspiring heroes who look like them, if that’s what they gravitate toward.
Our one Native American/First Nation child, however, will have to browse through a lot of titles before she finally finds that single, solitary book that features a relatable character. And hopefully, it’s one that features accurate representation that isn’t caricatured. The Latinx and Asian American/Asian Pacific Islander children don’t fare much better. Only five and seven of their ten chosen books will feature characters who resemble them. Black/African-American children can take home exactly ten books with characters who mirror them; but again, there is no guarantee they will be character-positive books with accurate and relatable—to say nothing of inspiring—representation.
Not only do each of the white children have fifty titles to choose from if they seek characters who look like them, they have the OPTION to choose books that feature characters from other cultures and communities or ones with animal or objects, if they wish. Our underrepresented children do NOT have the option. They MUST fill in the representation gaps with books that feature characters from other cultures or main characters who are animal/object stand-ins for them.
If you work with the raw numbers from the chart rather than the percentages, the depth of inequity becomes even clearer: a white child could read one new book a day with major character representation for four years and three months, just from one year’s worth of books. None of the other children get even a full year, though bears and talking tractors get two years and four months.
Now, keep in mind that the children’s book world covers all age categories—board books, picture books, early readers, chapter books, middle grade, and young adult. So, if you whittle those selections down to age-appropriate titles, that restricts true availability even more. In 2018, a Latinx fourth-grader didn’t have 170 books to choose from…perhaps more like thirty, whereas a white fourth-grader may have upwards of 250. That still gives them enough choice that they can be picky about genre and topic. Not so much for our other children.
This isn’t to say kids choose books solely because the main character looks like them. They also choose books with exciting plots and great voices in genres they love. But if given the choice of heroes in books, children NEED—and should be able—to see themselves explicitly as that hero. If that one Native American child takes home a bag full of books in which only one shows someone like her as the hero, whereas her white seatmate on the bus gets to take home a bag full of books in which all the main characters look him . . . well, that enforces ideas of privilege and tokenism.
Of course, the best fix is to increase the pool of published authors of color and support them in ways that allow them the time and ability to write more books representative of their communities and experiences. That will require changes throughout the publishing industry. It could also mean more white authors learning how to diversify the identities of their characters in ways that ensure healthy, accurate representation, but that should NOT come at the detriment of the fix above. Afterall, children should see themselves reflected in their favorite authors, too.
This doesn’t even touch on gender and partner preference identities, which is a separate but related conversation. (And before you ask—remember, children’s books include young adult, in which partner preference IS a valid topic for a main character.) The CCBC graph shows an improvement in representation over the 2015 version (also available on that linked page above), so that is encouraging. We’re heading in the right direction, but the industry still has much work to do.