Recently, I was talking with a friend about cultural references in books. Specifically, I was commenting on loving an aspect to a book that related to a certain culture and the references (and lack of references) that were used in the book. The story was great, but I also wanted to know more about the cultural differences, and how it made those characters unique compared to other books. it got me really thinking about the lack of cultural diversity in children’s books and why there aren’t more authors who write about their heritage through their novels.
I live in a community which is not culturally rich, compared to many other locations. So, I know when I’m choosing books to add to our collection, I do think about who the audience might be and choose accordingly. Buying tons of books about a remote group of people in say, Iceland, might not go over too well, no matter how interesting the books are. We just might not have a lot of people who would take the books out, even if they are brilliantly written and captivating stories. It’s difficult to promote every fantastic children’s book we own, and I have to tailor my budget accordingly.
That’s not a great excuse, I know, but it’s what I have to work with on a daily basis. It did, however, get me thinking about how authors who are not Caucasian feel about adding cultural references to their books, and also how accepted they are in comparison to other authors or books. So, when I came across this enlightening article by Young Adult author, Ellen Oh, who is of Korean descent, I had to share it. She does some wonderful infographics to show the differences in ethnicities in children’s books which will probably not shock you, but should be some sort of wake-up call to publishers and authors alike.
Oh originally thought that people of colour had been well represented in children’s literature, due to the strong advocacy of librarians and teachers looking for diversity. She was wrong.
“The percentage of books by and about people of color has hovered around 10% for nearly 20 years. When I first saw this graphic, I was absolutely stunned. I had no idea how little had changed.”
She’s talking about this infographic from Lee & Low Books.
(Read their blog. It’s got wonderful suggestions for books with TONS of cultural diversity. Amazing. I didn’t even know a lot of these books existed, but I’ll certainly be checking out many of the titles.)
Oh is specifically concerned with YA books now, as that is what she writes. After asking a librarian if she thought there were enough culturally diverse books on the shelves, the librarian thought there were, but “you just have to know how to look for them.” Oh sees this as part of the problem. As a librarian, this is really the same problem I think we have trying to promote ANY books in the library. We’re probably not going to have shelves just for books about Pirates, or teens who want tattoos, or books with a male main character (although maybe some libraries do, I can’t speak for us all), so to separate and promote books that have culturally diverse settings or characters might not be easy either. I think we try to do our best. If we hear or read about a great book, we promote it; it doesn’t matter what it’s about or where the characters live. I’d love to see more books about different people, because that’s what makes up our lives in the real world. We should definitely see that in the book world, too.
Authors, take note. Get out there and don’t be afraid to write fabulous books. Don’t be afraid to use your cultural backgrounds in the books. If the books are great, it won’t matter to the reader, and might bring along more readers who can’t wait to read the next book, and so on.
Do you think there is enough diversity in children’s books?