Where is the Color in Our Children’s Books?

Slam! Scorpions. Glory Field, Somewhere in the Darkness! Monster

Walter Dean Myers was one of my favorite writers growing up. In much the same way James Baldwin helped Myers to validate and define his existence, his words have supported countless young black boys and girls including myself.

In a New York Times Opinion piece entitled “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?”, Myers expressed his concerns over the striking absence of black and brown faces in todays childrens and young adult literature.

In 1969, when I first entered the world of writing children’s literature, the field was nearly empty. Children of color were not represented, nor were children from the lower economic classes. Today, when about 40 percent of public school students nationwide are black and Latino, the disparity of representation is even more egregious. In the middle of the night I ask myself if anyone really cares.

Of course, Myers observation holds true even outside of the publishing world. For many children of color in the United States, everything from the video games they play, to the movies they watch, to the toys they play with are predominantly created and designed by and for a white audience.

This type of invisibility can have real consequences for kids of color in terms of self-esteem.

In the 1940s psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted the now famous ‘Doll Tests’ to demonstrate the toxic effects stereotypes, racism and segregation had on black children. The Clark’s presented young black kids with a series of dolls, identical in every way except for the color of their skin. The children were asked to identify the race of each doll and then to pick out the one they preferred the most. Overwhelmingly the young children selected the white doll, attributing to it more positive characteristics and greater worth. These children, some as young as three years old, had already learned the color of their skin was devalued. Before they could even read or write, they had internalized racism and self-hatred.

Today, just as it was in the 1940s, to exist as a young black kid in the united states is to constantly entertain the question of where you belong. Even worse, in a million subtle ways — and some not so subtle — you’re reminded of how little you’re thought of. It is an exercise in staring into the mirror of our society and being confronted with a gross caricature.

As Myers illustrates through his own personal experiences, for many black children these signals are all that’s needed to detach from society. When Myers began to see how the world viewed him, he stopped applying himself in school, started skipping classes and on his 17th birthday enrolled in the military. Eventually things came together for Myers, but for many other young people of color the same cannot be said.

When the opinion piece was first published, a friend of mine asked what needed to be done to increase the diversity of representation in children’s books. Obviously, boosting the number of books featuring  people of color is important, but just as important is the quality and sincerity of the work. It’s a real disservice to all of us to settle for stereotypical or generic pieces which merely serve to fill a quota. At the same time, we should also be encouraging young kids and young adults of color to create this work for themselves. Finally, we need to support the few people who are already creating this work — it’s out there and it may be special work, we just have yet to unearth it.

All of these things — publishing good work and encouraging more people to publish these kinds of stories — ultimately mean a more explicit effort on everyone’s part. From publishers, to teachers, to librarians, to parents, we need to emphasize the importance of holding up a more diverse range of literature.

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