In 1990, scholar Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop wrote that books are mirrors, reflecting our own lives back at us, and that reading is therefore a means of self-affirmation. That idea is the inspiration behind a powerful new image that shows just how badly children’s books are failing our kids.
In the infographic, children of colour gaze skeptically into small and cracked mirrors while, nearby, a white child — and a bear — smile into full-length ones.
It’s based on some troubling, new U.S. publishing statistics that in 2018 there were more children’s books featuring animals and other non-human characters (27 per cent) than all types of visible minorities combined (23 per cent). Meanwhile, half of all the children’s books reviewed featured white kids.
“The positive ‘mirror’ experience is exactly why representation matters. Actually seeing someone who looks like you doing something you never thought of, it can give you the idea that ‘this could be me someday,’” U.S. children’s book illustrator David Huyck, who drew the image, told HuffPost Canada.
Huyck created the image along with Sarah Park Dahlen, a professor in library and information science at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn. Dahlen, who is Korean-American, wrote on her website that the cracks in the mirrors represent how many of the books that do have diverse characters get it wrong.
“Children’s literature continues to misrepresent underrepresented communities, and we wanted this infographic to show not just the low quantity of existing literature, but also the inaccuracy and uneven quality of some of those books,” Dahlen wrote.
To create the infographic, Dahlen and Huyck used data from the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC), which has been compiling statistics on diversity in U.S. children’s books since 1985.
Of the 3,134 children’s books they reviewed in 2018, just 23, or one per cent, depicted Indigenous characters. Five per cent of the pics depicted LatinX characters, seven per cent had Asian Pacific Islander/Asian Pacific American characters, and 10 per cent had African/African American characters.
WATCH: Celebrating diversity in children’s books. Story continues below.
In their report, the CCBC urges people to buy and share more books featuring diverse characters.
“Sales matter to publishing,” the CCBC said in the report.
Dahlen and Huyck created a similar image in 2016, using 2015 CCBC data. That year, 73.3 per cent of children’s books depicted white characters.
But, don’t interpret the drop in white characters as a win for representation. The numbers for diverse characters only marginally increased over three years. It was the books featuring animals and trucks that made up the difference, jumping from 12.5 per cent in 2015 to 27 per cent in 2018.
Not just about, but by
While books “about” diverse characters are important, so are books “by” diverse authors. And those numbers are even smaller, the CCBC notes. That means a lot of the books that do contain characters of colour are created by white people, and may not depict the experience properly.
Huyck readily admits he’s a “white, male illustrator.”
“I am that blonde-haired blue-eyed boy at the right of my illustration. I’ve never questioned whether I could identify with the characters in the books I read or the movies I watch. But that is simply not the case for so many children across the U.S., and surely in Canada, too,” he said.
“In an ideal future, there will not only be more books about underrepresented people, but there will be more and more books written and illustrated by people representing their own diverse communities.”
That’s a challenge Canadian graphic artist Jay Odjick has been more than happy to rise to.
Odjick recently collaborated with Canadian author Robert Munsch to create Bear for Breakfast (Makwa kidji kijebà wìsiniyàn), which was published in English and French, with Algonquin translations for both. The duo also previously collaborated on Blackflies, set in a northern Alberta reserve, which made several best-sellers lists.
“I don’t know if there had ever been a bestseller set on a reserve with a cast of all First Nations characters,” Odjik previously told HuffPost Canada.
“It’s important for kids to see themselves reflected in their content. It can be a big deal for a kid to pick up a children’s book and see someone who looks like them.”