When Mia Wenjen was in fourth grade, she made it her mission to read every book in her elementary school library in Seal Beach, California. By the end of sixth grade, she had accomplished her goal.
But after she had finished devouring her favorite middle-grade chapter books and biographies, she realized something was wrong:
“I never saw a character that looked like me, ever.”
Wenjen, who is half Japanese and half Chinese, is now 55 years old and has four children of her own with her Korean husband. When she was raising her kids, she made it a priority to find books with Asian characters so her children would never feel alienated by what they read, like she did growing up.
While the diversity in children’s books has increased since Wenjen was in elementary school, the characters in books are still not representative of what children in the United States look like today. In 2018, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that the majority of children under age 15 are nonwhite, for the first time ever. However, according to the latest report by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, out of all children’s books published in 2018, 50 percent of the characters were white and 27 percent were animals. Just 23 percent depicted a minority character.
Books as Mirrors
“Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Glass Doors,” a landmark article by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, has served as an inspiration to the people doing the work to increase diversity in children's books since it was released in 1990. It verbalizes the idea that books can be seen as a reflection of society, and when certain groups are left out of that reflection, they can feel like outcasts.
The article describes how books can serve as windows by giving insight into another world, or as sliding glass doors when children can use their imagination to step into that world. Books can also serve as mirrors.
“Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience,” the article says. “Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.”
Sims Bishop wrote that when children can not find “mirror books,” or when the depictions they see of characters who look like them are negative or distorted, “they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part.”
Nina Crews is an African-American author and illustrator who takes the power of children seeing themselves in books to a whole new level. For her books, she photographs kids from her neighborhood and close circle and uses them as the characters. In her debut book, “One Hot Summer Day,” Crews used her cousin, a toddler at the time, as the main character.
“I thought she was perfect for it,” Crews said in an interview. “She was everything, everything I wanted the book to be.”
Her latest release is the poetry book “A Girl Like Me.” Crews did her classic photo collage-style illustrations for the book, written by Angela Johnson, about celebrating the readers’ individuality.
Zo Duncan, a black 11-year-old from Brooklyn, was one of the girls photographed for the book.
“I was just proud of myself and excited to see that I was in a book that hundreds of people, and girls like me, were all going to see,” she said. Although Zo is in fifth grade and reading chapter books instead of picture books now, she believes the book will have a big impact on young black girls.
“I think they would feel proud that girls like them… were in a book that would be seen all over the place, and that they would be encouraged to be the best person they could be,” she said.
Bishop’s mirror metaphor was instrumental in the creation of a viral infographic created by scholar Sarah Park Dahlen and illustrator David Huyck. It portrays the results of the children’s book center’s 2018 report on diversity in children’s books.
Huyck, David and Sarah Park Dahlen. (2019 June 19). Diversity in Children’s Books 2018. sarahpark.com blog. Created in consultation with Edith Campbell, Molly Beth Griffin, K. T. Horning, Debbie Reese, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, and Madeline Tyner, with statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison: http://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/pcstats.asp. Retrieved from https://readingspark.wordpress.com/2019/06/19/picture-this-diversity-in-childrens-books-2018-infographic/
The infographic depicts the different types of children and animals included in the study looking at themselves in mirrors as a metaphor for how often they were represented in books that year. The white child is surrounded by several shiny mirrors. In comparison, the Native American child has only a cracked compact mirror. The infographic looks similar to one the scholars had produced after the center's 2015 report--in which 73 percent of characters were white, 13 percent were animals, and 14 percent were minorities--with one major change.
“This time, we suggested the cracked mirrors to show that the reflections are not fully accurate,” Dahlen said. “One of the differences we see between 2015 and 2018 is that even though the numbers, the percentages, of diversity in children's books has increased, the numbers of diverse nonwhite authors has not significantly increased.”
Dahlen is a Korean American associate professor in the Master of Library and Information Sciences program at St. Catherine University in Minnesota and the co-editor of the Research on Diversity in Youth Literature academic journal. She said that although the number of books about diverse characters has gone up, the proportion of nonwhite authors writing them is decreasing.
“The industry answer to the lack of diversity in children's books is to hire more white people to create diverse books, and that is 100 percent not what we're asking for,” she said. “We are asking for autonomy and control over our stories.”
Like many other movements of our time, the push for focusing on not just the characters but authors of children’s books has been popularized by a hashtag.
The #OwnVoices movement started on Twitter in 2015 when Corinne Duyvis created the hashtag. Duyvis, a science fiction author and self-described “disabled delight,” wanted to create a way “to recommend kidlit about diverse characters written by authors from that same diverse group.” The hashtag has since exploded and has become the moniker for a movement fighting against the overall “whiteness” of the children’s book world.
According to another report by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center from 2017, only 29.4% of children’s books written that year with majority African American content and characters were written or illustrated by an African American. The numbers were similar for other minority groups.
Marietta Zacker, a Latinx literary agent at Galt & Zacker Literary Agency, seeks out books that tell diverse stories in a natural way, not as a trend. She says that most books that accomplish this are by authors who are speaking from their own experiences.
Data courtesy of the Cooperative Children's Book Center 2017 Multicultural Statistics
“When I read submissions, they are stories that speak to me in that authentic way, and inevitably it’s stories of people who don't fit into the box,” Zacker said. “Not surprisingly, a lot of marginalized groups end up in that space.”
Authors have to walk a fine line when writing about cultures other than their own. But Dr. Michelle H. Martin, the Beverly Cleary Endowed Professor for Children and Youth Services at the University of Washington and a self-proclaimed “inclusive scholar,” believes that certain stories can only be told by people from that culture.
“There's a special sauce when it comes to #OwnVoices writers,” Martin, an African American woman, said. “I wouldn't say white people don't have any right to write about black stories or any culture outside, but I think you need to be very responsible and do your homework."
"If you don't do your homework, and you are not a part of that cultural heritage, you can make mistakes that are unforgivable.”
These mistakes can include, for example, telling a story from a Native American culture that, within that culture, only certain people (such as the elders) would have the right to tell, Martin explained. Books have also been pulled from the shelves for including racist stereotypes and making light of oppression and tragedies like slavery.
Anne Sibley O’Brien is a renowned multicultural children’s books author, illustrator and advocate and was the co-creator of the Diverse BookFinder database. She is also a white woman.
Raised by medical missionaries in South Korea, O’Brien cites her bicultural and bilingual upbringing as the reason she has devoted her life to multicultural children’s books.
“I grew up learning two languages, two cultures, and so it was just how the world was. The only world I knew was multiracial, multilingual, multicultural,” O’Brien said. “When I decided that children's books were what I wanted to do with my dream of being an artist, it wasn't a decision or a question. If they're books for children, they have to have all kinds of children in them.”
O’Brien recognizes that there are stories she cannot tell because of her identity, and she has put a lot of thought into figuring out the best way to write about other cultures without being problematic.
“One thing that people have said clearly is, ‘Please don't come into our community and take our stories.’ You can fill your books with characters of many different races without writing a story that's from within a community,” O’Brien said.
“What people are asking for is if you're going to write across the gap, do your due diligence. Do your homework. Recognize where your blind spots are… I've been saved from a lot of the worst mistakes I might have made by getting input early and often.”
Diverse books serve a key role as mirrors for children of marginalized groups who otherwise would not find themselves represented. However, they also serve as windows into other communities and share important perspectives that children otherwise may not get.
“We are a diverse society, and if we want all children to be able to articulate their own story and to develop a full sense of their value in this world, they should be valued [in books],” Nina Crews explained. “That doesn't just mean that the kids who are black read black books or the kids who are Native American read Native American books, but all kids are reading all of these stories and recognizing both the similarities and the differences between each other.”
One of Zo Duncan’s favorite books from her early childhood was “The Ugly Vegetables” by Grace Lin. The book is about celebrating physical and cultural differences and aspects of Chinese culture.
“I liked the book because I like learning about other cultures and to be exposed to the world,” she explained, adding that almost all of what she has learned about other cultures throughout her childhood has been because of books she read.
In her article, Sims Bishop wrote that for many children, books may be the only means by which they learn about realities outside of their own.
“If they see only reflections of themselves, they will grow up with an exaggerated sense of their own importance and value in the world--a dangerous ethnocentrism,” the article explains.
When Mia Wenjen was finding Asian-American books to read to her kids, she read a study by Lee & Low Books, a multicultural publisher, citing how the number of diverse book characters barely fluctuated over the last several years. Reading this made her realize that not only did she miss out on seeing herself in books, but she had missed out on learning about other cultures as well.
Wenjen now runs a parenting blog that focuses on multicultural children’s literature and curates diverse children’s book lists ranging from LGBTQ books to Arab American books.
Use the slider to discover resources that will help you find and learn about diverse books
“The only thing you can do as parents raising children is to teach our kids to be more empathetic and more tolerant,” Wenjen said. “That is one thing we have control over. And books are a powerful way to do that.”
To further this cause of increased awareness of other cultures, Wenjen and fellow book-blogger Valarie Budayr created Multicultural Children’s Book Day in 2012, a holiday dedicated to celebrating diverse books. They created a nonprofit and, along with spreading awareness, have donated thousands of diverse books to parents, educators and libraries.
In the last four years of promoting the holiday, they have also created classroom kits around different topics. The kits include a booklist for the topic, in-classroom activity lists, discussion guides and posters.
“Our topics have included kindness, empathy—which really focuses on the immigrant and refugee experience—poverty in America, and our last one was on disability,” Wenjen explained.
From the Top Down
Many people attribute the disproportionate number of white-focused books to the demographics of the book industry as a whole.
Lee & Low Books publishes an annual baseline survey on the state of diversity in the publishing industry. Its 2019 report found that 76 percent of people who work in publishing are white, 78 percent are cis women, 81 percent are straight and 89 percent are non-disabled.
“I think the issue is that while the books are being published, the publishers are mostly white, the librarians are majority white, the teachers are majority white, and so, in general, everyone felt like if there's a book about, say, an African American girl, only African American girls would read that book, and therefore the market was very small,” Wenjen said.
The Cooperative Children’s Book Center reported that in 2018 only 21% of all children’s books— from U.S.publishers— were written by nonwhite authors, despite minorities accounting for 40% of the United States population.
Crews, who is a part of that 21%, says that ultimately publishing is a business, and one that is run pretty conservatively.
“They tend to say ‘Okay, well, I know that we can sell this,’ and ‘I know that we can sell that,’ and ‘I'm not sure that we can sell this so we're not going to do it.’ And so it's very hard for changes to happen on those levels because they just have a hard time seeing beyond what has already succeeded,” she said. “It’s frustrating.”
Martin has been educating future librarians and teachers for over 25 years. She says it is imperative to expose them to, and educate them on, the importance of diverse books for young readers.
“Librarianship is 78% white, and the teaching profession isn't too far off from that demographic,” she said. “Given that, I really try to do what I can to diversify the pipeline, but to also teach those white and middle-class women going through the pipeline about the importance of own voices literature, about the importance about putting the right book in the right child’s hand and really educating themselves on probably different types of literature that they didn't have coming up.”
Wenjen decided to take matters into her own hands and create something about her Japanese heritage that was not based on a white depiction or stereotype. So she published her children’s book “Sumo Joe,” a rhyming story about a boy who is a “gentle big brother” but also likes to sumo wrestle with his friends.
“You say ‘sumo’ and everyone thinks it’s comical and silly, and it’s, like, ‘Okay, it’s cool that people have warm feelings about sumos,’ but a fat man in a diaper is a stereotyped, racist version of it,” Wenjen said. “So, I figured now that everyone thinks they’re cool and nice, here’s the nonracist version. Here’s why they are actually cool.”