There has been some justified talk about the state of race in children’s books lately. Most recently, First Book issued the infographic above about a recent survey that illustrated how few characters are non-white in children’s books. Lee and Low asked why the number of multicultural books haven’t increased in the past eighteen years.
If the numbers are accurate, it’s a wakeup call for authors everywhere.
And that’s not because of quotas or any particular agenda. It’s because children’s books are not reflecting the lives of children in America today.
The census bureau recently announced that for the first time, non-whites and mixed race children accounted for a majority of births in America. We Americans are living in an increasingly diverse country, and while story is ultimately more important than strict fidelity to the world we live in, it’s nevertheless disquieting for fiction to diverge from reality that starkly.
In my own experience, my main character is mixed race. Jacob Wonderbar has an African American mother and a white father who, for the record, may also be from outer space.
Though interestingly, I’ve very very rarely seen reference to Jacob’s race in reviews and have never seen it included on a list of books with minority or mixed race characters. A few reviewers have noted it, but not many. Partly, no doubt, this is because of how I handled Jacob’s race in the novels, which is briefly mentioned in an oblique way and doesn’t occupy much of the narrative at all.
This was a conscious choice. Jacob spends the vast majority of his time with his friends, who don’t dwell on it at all, and with space humans, who are far more concerned with the fact that he is an “Earther.”
These books aren’t “about” Jacob’s mixed-raceness. It’s just a part of him, and one that his friends have accepted so wholly as a basic, nonthreatening reality that they don’t find it necessary to talk about it.
I’m hoping we’re moving toward that world. And while I’d never tell another author how to write their novel, I hope we all as children’s book authors strive to create our novels in a way that today’s children will find relevant, meaningful and reflective of the world they live in.
Are you troubled by these statistics?
K. C. Blake says
The main character in my recent YA novel Bait is Latin on her mother's side, and a couple of people have commented on it. One blogger in-particular loved it because she is also a Latina. But like your book my novel isn't about her race. She is proud to be who she is, but she doesn't make a big deal out of it and neither do other characters. It would be nice if there were more characters in books that reflected who we are as a nation.
Bryan Russell says
I find it interesting that a lot of people seem to think that to write a non-white character they have to somehow represent the entire experience of that race. As if, to write a black character, you have to somehow capture the black experience in some universal way.
But you don't. You only have to capture that single character's experience of being black, and there are as many such experiences as there are black people. In the same way, you have to capture that character's experience of everything: their gender, their class, their lifestyle, their profession, their education, their faith, and their hopes and dreams and beliefs. Race is simply one facet of the character. It is how you handle all of this that will allow the character to become real. You don't have to capture the universal "black" experience (if such a thing were to exist); you merely have to convince the reader that this character's experience (of their race, culture, place in the world, etc.) is real and that it has some sense of truth within the world you create and lay out within your fiction.
Brave and important post. Thank you for speaking about this, Nathan.
Children learn about themselves in large part by watching how the world relates to them. And when the hero of the book is always White, and you are not, that is a very subtle but powerful way to teach children of color that they are less important, second class citizens, not worthy of being the main character, always a sidekick or absent altogether.
Books permeate the society and have a powerful impact. This really needs to change. Children of color need to know that books are about them and for them. Thanks again for writing this, Nathan. A really valuable and important conversation.
And on the larger issue of diversity, I agree with you and D.G. Hudson – the entire Industry would benefit from increased diversity.
Nathan Bransford says
I'll say again about the cover (which, for the record, I didn't create but am happy with): Jacob does not look white to everyone at first glance. I've had people say that to me unprompted without knowing the story.
I did study the cover more closely after reading this post, and thought to myself, "Duh." The cover reflects his background, I just missed it.
These numbers are indeed disturbing, particularly when you look at how few were written by authors of color. Of color is African American, Latino/a, Asian American and Indian American, though Indians are a distinct Nation and prefer not to be called people of color. If you use the term 'people of color', that distinguishes from 'people of non-color'. White and black are not colors. It's about self empowerment. As an African American, I would not define myself as 'non-white' because that gives the perception of living in a white centered world. For the same reason, a white person would probably be uncomfortable using the term 'person of non-color'. It shifts the power.
For more reasons than I'll elaborate, we need more books written by authors of color that feature characters of color. We need more books that feature characters of color. I would like to ask the authors who write about characters of color (sometimes as mixed raced characters) what it is that you mean they have 'regular experiences'. My regular is not your regular and 'regular' is still a fuction of race in this country. I think you have to take cultural experiences into account and this can be done without making race the object of the story. Ignoring these differences does not help to validate people of color or those who are LGBT, have physical or learning disabilities or different racial beliefs.
Places like this blog where people can freely and honestly exchange information is a very good start.
Jennifer Malise says
What really bothers me is when I'm reading a book and I learn that the characters are dark-skinned or have dark complexions, but are depicted as white in the cover art. I think it's ridiculous! Show the characters as they are in the book. No one should be looking at a book and determining whether or not they want to read it based on the main character's skin color, not in this day and age. People should want a great character and a great story, regardless of race.
Rachelle Ayala says
To Anonymous: What exactly is a "white" character? When you say Jacob reads white, is it because he's acting like a normal person? He's not doing stereotypical "black" or "mixed-race" things?
What exactly is a nonwhite character supposed to do for you to believe he is not white? Exhibit stereotypes? Or you would say a normal character is an essentially "white" character given a skin graft?
My characters are nonwhite, and someone has told me, well, they're acting white. If that means they have a college education, have good jobs, are intelligent and can write software, then I take issue to this. Do I have to put a dashiki on them or have them speak in broken English?
I believe the entire point is to include nonwhite characters doing normal things that all characters do: make mistakes, fall in love, do stupid things, save the day, be villains, be heroes, without making it a statement on their race.
I agree with ADominiqueSmith – let these people be in the story and not just dealing with race issues. And please, don't tell me my Latina character acts white because she has a job, or she can write code, or that my Asian character acts white because he speaks perfect English. This is insulting. I have seen books where the author decides to have the obligatory Asian character, but in a stereotypical profession, such as mom and pop store owner, and speaking broken English. Or they have the typical maid who is Latina and she doesn't speak English. That's perpetuating stereotypes.
Tea Trove – I have a biracial male athlete in one of my books. My first crit partners didn't even realize he was biracial, so yes, in a way I had to write in a subplot where he deals with this, between his mother and sister who didn't want him to date a white woman, and his own resentment about not fitting in.
In my current WIP, I had to call it out in the first chapter where the male character says "Filipinas are gorgeous" and she asks "Are all Aussie men so tough?" This is not natural, but something that has to be done when the default is assumed to be white.
RaeChell – Yay! Exactly. I agree with you 100%! Someone criticized my book saying, what is this? the United Nations? Umm, no, it is life in the San Francisco Bay Area.
K.C. Blake, Bryan, Mira, campbele – Like!
Finally, Jacob does not look white. He only looks white to some people because of their expectation of what a biracial person should look like. Jacob looks like Jacob and since Nathan describes his mother and father, then it is very believable. I know many bi/tri/etc-racial people of every combination and guess what? You usually can't tell. Many Asian/Caucasian people look Hispanic.
Thanks Nathan for opening up this topic. Sorry to hear people are unsubscribing. I applaud you for dealing with this and having this discussion.
Zachary Colston says
I am not about to read 58 long comments, so I hope I am the first to suggest that the statistics MAY be skewed. Did they take into account the number of children's books where the characters are animals? I am guessing that is a large percent without a race tagged onto it. Just a thought.
Ben Saufley says
A bit confused by these numbers just because I'm not sure I understand the emphasis on America at all. Is this a survey of children's books taking place in America? Or does it signify that less than .6% of children's books even take place outside of America or feature non-American characters? Or are we counting Africans with African-Americans? Hispanics with Hispanic-Americans? And so on?
I followed the links. They are grouped together. The original source groups "African / African Americans" together and so on. I think that's an important distinction that gets left out by the chart.
It's kind of funny that a chart about the lack of representation of minorities would omit foreigners from its own representation.
Not a judgment of the message – it's clear something's wrong when the representation of a majority of the planet is such a minority in media like this. But maybe something like this points out how deeply ingrained the problem is, that even those who are trying to fix it are falling prey to their own ethnic blinders.
Graciela Tiscareno-Sato says
To answer your question, yes I'm troubled, so I'm doing something about it. I'm a Latina and started a book publishing/marketing company 3 years ago to create content to address this obvious problem, for children, young adults AND business audiences, all of whom lack access to positive images of Latinos in the literature they consume. It may surprise you how I'm choosing to do it: there will be no books about girls making tamales, or granny's chocolate in the old country…no. I choose to show Latinas and Latinos as the valuable contributors to this nation that we are: as entrepreneurs, innovators, business owners, and for children, as military officers and aviators.
My new bilingual children's book, the first of its kind to show young children why mommies wear military uniforms, just listed with Ingram, Baker and Taylor and Amazon in 4 countries. It's titled "Good Night Captain Mama / Buenas Noches Capitán Mamá" [ISBN: 978-0-9834760-3-0] and it is based on my military aviation service in the U.S. Air Force. Captain Mama is Latina, her little boy's name is Marco. Latino children everywhere have mothers and fathers in uniform and yet have we seen books to depict this part of our society? No. And we will not see more until WE, the Latina entrepreneur and publisher, creates them. 🙂
Our 1st book "Latinnovating: Green American Jobs and the Latinos Creating Them" [ISBN: 978-0983476009]won 3 awards at the 2012 International Latino Book Awards in NYC. Have you heard of these awards? No. Hmmm…why is that? Earlier this month, 190 authors and publishers were recognized at the 2013 ILBA awards in dozens of categories. Trust me, the books exist. They're just coming from sources that don't have lobbyists pushing legislators to specify and allocate procurement funds for school district materials and country library purchases. So the perception exists that there are no books while those of us creating books understand what the real problem is to having our children connect with these books.
Thank you for keeping the heat on; keep this topic in the American consciousness because that's the only way that buyers will really understand that it's NOT about a lack of books; it's about the NY Times not reviewing our books, the big publishers not publishing our books (and therefore not buying expensive ads to promote them in the ALA magazine that librarians look at when they buy,) etc. So we small, scrappy creative multicultural publishers and authors will find our way through the back or side door or window, whatever it takes. We’re on it!
Chief Creative Officer
Gracefully Global Group LLC
Graciela Tiscareno-Sato says
And for those who doubt there's a market for these types of books and characters, trust me, there are MULTIPLE markets and they are global in scope. But learning the specifics of who, where, how they buy takes a whole lot more effort to discover and then to create products to address their needs in English, in Spanish and with bilingual literature. This additional effort, to understand mysterious ethnic markets and racial groups, is simply too much work for those who are fat, dumb and happy w/the status quo, in denial about our nation's changing demographics reported just about daily somewhere and likely choosing to ignore the fact that in 37 years this nation will be a full 1/3 Latino. So this is another reason why this research and additional work is not done. It's a lot easier to say "Latinas don't read." "Latino don't buy books." There's no market," "Those types of books don't sell well," Just sayin….
Chief Creative Officer
Gracefully Global Group LLC
I agree with a lot of what you said Nathan about writing a character of a different culture. While I wrote a children's book about a boy of Latin descent most publishers do not even care. They especially do not care if the author is Latin American also. D.G. Hudson made a good point. When do we grow past the stigma of race and just accept our multi-cultural differences?
Hope you don't mind me wandering into OT territory, Nathan, but I'm well down in the hierarchy of responses, so only you will read, prob. Finally set up Amazon account so I could order with one click and have got me a copy of Jacob Wonderbar. My previous attempts just resulted in rejection of credit card details which I wasn't able to edit after clicking on the edit button. I see now I should have just deleted and started again. Have started in on first chapter and really enjoying it – usual for me as I don't read much now. Great characterization of Miss Pinkerton, I must say. 🙂
P.S.: Meant to type '…unusual for me…'
I understand what you're saying, Bryan, but I personally don't have the confidence to write about any type of person I've not had personal contact with. A few stories have been spoilt for me by protagonists who don't ring true, usually when male authors have female heroines and visa versa. One of my stories in the past was criticized for the 'unrealistic' portrayal of a teenage boy. So there's no way I'm going to attempt to convey folk from races I've never encountered. I'm often surprised by the reactions and conversations by people of colour I've watched from reality TV shows from the States. Many of the ladies of colour from a certain demographic are shown as more on the volatile side I've noticed. Whether that is true or not, I simply don't know. I couldn't capture the nuances of a character when I didn't understand their attitudes or their vernacular or what they've experienced. And that goes for modern day teenagers, too, of any race.
Sarah Hipple says
Yes! I hope that's the direction our writing is going too.
My last manuscript definitely had plenty of people of mixed race, but now I'm writing a book set in the 1950s, so . . . I'm back to a white main character with a few black characters.
But, given the era, I think I'm going to try to touch on some of the important issues of the time (race included). The last manuscript didn't look at race. It was just there.
Bryan Russell says
I hear what you're saying, both about confidence and about criticism, and I know a lot of other readers feel the same way. But, to me, the key is that you're true to the character, regardless of whether the traits describe something that is considered part of the type or not. The key is that these traits have a specific foundation in a unique character and are mot simply being adopted to fit a racial or ethnic type.
You mention ladies of colour who are portrayed a certain way. Now, you can portray someone that way, but it shouldn't be because that is simply the cultural default. If you create a three-dimensional character whose traits are based on her own unique experiences, unique family, and unique place in culture, people won't say "Oh she acts like that because she's black" or "she acts like that because she's Hispanic"; rather, they'll recognize her for who she is as a unique person, because how she acts will descend logically from her own unique history.
The same goes for controverting types. Some people may say "Oh, that person is not acting black" or something of the sort, but that usually only means that the writer has not convinced the reader of the uniqueness of the character… or has not made the character unique. Has not made them a person unto themselves. If a character's actions and attitudes are clearly delineated from their own unique history, the reader will believe. How did this character come to be who they are? This is something that can be asked of any character, regardless of race, gender, or ethnicity. And one of the roles of fiction is to answer this question. This is the creation of character. Answer it well enough – create a character real enough – and the reader will believe anything.
Why would a reader travel along with the rabbits of Watership Down, hanging on their actions and identifying with them? Because the author convinced the reader of the reality of that character, of the veracity of their actions, thoughts, and beliefs.
That is what we have to try to do with every character. It is an act of the writerly imagination. We will not always do it perfectly. In fact, we never will. But it is in our imperfect struggles that art is made and words are shaped and people come together. Being open to possibility, I think, is one of the central facets of telling stories. The struggle to identify with others (including fictional others) is the key. Empathy is at the heart of any such imaginative leap.
I too want more diversity. People don't have to have a PHD in cultural anthropology to write about people of another race or ethnic group. We are all the same – human. And every black, asian, latino person in US does not spend every minute of their lives thinking about their color or their cultural heritage. They live ordinary lives, are often middle class, and can be included in all kinds of books. I couldn't believe when it was time to buy books for children who are grandchild age for me that the best book around was A Snowy Day (and often Keats' books were the only ones.)
While I'm at it – why do people of color have to specifically identified not only by skin color but by some cultural tick whereas most characters in books are assumed to be white and it is assumed everyone else knows all about white people and can understand them and what's more are really interested in them because they are almost the only people in books.
I feel that as writers we can–and should–make the effort to find ways to remind the reader of a character's race in ways that naturally come up among friends and acquaintances who don't CARE about skin color, or accent, or cultural differences, but NOTICE them from time to time (which is completely natural). Just the other day I mentioned to an African American friend of mine how beautiful his skin looked against the pale green shirt he was wearing–and how I could never wear that color. He agreed, that I was too pasty to pull it off. It wasn't a conversation about race, but about skin color–in a non-loaded manner. It takes some extra time to find believable ways to work this into a book, but personally, I feel it's an obligation I have.