Published on: Monday, August 1, 2016 Takoma Park Newsletter

Mirrors, windows and books for all

By Karen MacPherson

Diversity is much more than a hashtag in the world of children’s and teen literature these days. There is a growing effort by publishers, librarians and others to ensure that all kids have access to books that offer them windows to different worlds outside their own, while also providing mirrors that reflect their own experience.

Galvanized by the recent “We Need Diverse Books” movement, the children’s and teen literature world also has been inspired by essays written by the late Walter Dean Myers, the third National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, and his son Christopher Myers. Published in The New York Times Book Review in March 2014, these essays pointedly noted that the lack of diversity in books for kids had first been highlighted decades ago, and decried the fact that so little had changed since then.

Statistics kept by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin underline that fact. The latest statistics show that of the more than 3,400 books the CCBC received from publishers, only a sliver were by African-American, Latino, Asian or American Indian authors or illustrators, or featured characters of those races or ethnicities.

As Walter Dean Myers wrote in his 2014 essay, “books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books? Where are the future white personnel managers going to get their ideas of people of color? Where are the future white loan officers and future white politicians going to get their knowledge of people of color? Where are black children going to get a sense of who they are and what they can be?”

While children’s literature experts agree there still is a very long way to go, there has been some progress towards diversifying the kinds of books written and published for kids and teens. For example, “We Need Diverse Books” isn’t just a slogan, but has been transformed into an organization that publishes lists of recommended books and also has created a new award, The Walter – named for Walter Dean Myers – to recognize and celebrate the best books by diverse authors. The first award was given earlier this year to Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely for their teen book, All American Boys.

While the major publishers of children’s and teen books remain a largely white workforce, a number of them are actively attempting to diversify their offerings for kids and teens. Professional review journals like School Library Journal are actively recruiting more reviewers of color and diverse backgrounds in an effort to offer a fresh take on children’s literature. Meanwhile, Kirkus Reviews now is noting in each kids’ or teen book review the race of the characters, in part to underline the fact white characters remain the majority in children’s books, even as the United States is fast becoming “majority-minority.”

Other hopeful signs include the recent winners of some of the most prestigious children’s literature awards. In 2015 Dan Santat, who is of Thai descent, won the Caldecott Medal for his book The Adventures of Beekle, while Kwame Alexander, an African-American, won the Newbery Medal for The Crossover. This year Matt de la Pena became the first Latino male to win the Newbery Medal for his picture book Last Stop on Market Street, while the Caldecott Medal went to Sophie Blackall for Finding Winnie. While Blackall is white, the number of women who have won the Caldecott Medal remains much smaller than men; the last woman to win the Caldecott Medal was Erin Stead in 2011.

In addition the American Library Association sponsors an array of awards designed to promote diversity in children’s and teen books. There’s the Coretta Scott King Award for books by African-American authors and illustrators, the Pura Belpre Award for books by Latino authors and illustrators, the Schneider Family Book Award for books about “the disability experience” for kids and teens and the Stonewall Book Awards for books featuring LGBTQ characters. Other ALA-associated awards focus on books created by American Indians as well as Asian-Pacific Islanders.

At our Library we purchase all of the ALA award-winning books and spotlight those and other books by diverse authors and illustrators (including books on the We Need Diverse Books lists) in our displays. We also try to promote these books to kids and their parents, following the idea that young readers benefit from both windows into other people’s experiences and mirrors that reflect their own lives.

In fact libraries have a key role to play in the effort to ensure diversity in books for kids and teens. As Matt de la Pena said in his Newbery Medal acceptance speech in June, “librarians: In a time when some people build walls, you give young people the tools they need to tear them down.”

This article appeared in the August 2016 edition of the Takoma Park Newsletter. The Takoma Park Newsletter is available for download here.