(In a Facebook post I shared earlier this week there was some discussion in the comments in which a belief in more than one of the myths below was expressed by smart, compassionate, well-meaning parents. Does this mean we are failing in our quest for equality and diversity? Not at all. It simply means that we still have a lot to learn. Where can we start? With books, of course! LEE & LOW BOOKS is a leader in this endeavor, proving with every new book they publish that multicultural books can also be popular mainstream books. Thank you LEE & LOW BOOKS! Read on… —Jenni)
By Hannah Ehrlich, Director of Marketing & Publicity at LEE & LOW BOOKS
It’s no secret that children are often more open-minded than adults. After all, they’ve been alive just a fraction of our lives, and so have picked up just a fraction of our biases. But what happens when we, the gatekeepers, allow our own biases to be reflected in our reading choices for children?
That’s something I’ve seen happen over and over again when it comes to diverse books. In my work at LEE & LOW BOOKS, a diverse children’s book publisher, we get so much wonderful feedback from parents and teachers looking for more diverse books. Our books have won major awards and are used in classrooms across the country. Still, we see many adults dismiss our books out of hand because they all feature characters of color. In fact, on more than one occasion, I’ve seen an adult turn away from our books with a polite, “I don’t think those would work for my kids,” while their children are already paging through one of our titles.
Here are a few of the most common myths we come across about diverse books, and how to debunk them:
Children don’t pay attention to race. Research shows that children notice race and representation, whether or not adults address it directly with them. They notice race when it comes to toys and television, and we can be sure they notice it in books, too. The lack of children of color in books can affect children’s self-confidence, engagement, and reading levels. The silver lining, though, is that positive representations of race in children’s books can have long-term positive effects on how children perceive themselves and each other. A new study by several psychologists indicates that children who read books featuring cross-racial friendships reported greater comfort and interest in playing across difference than children who did not, and those attitudes persisted several months after the completion of the study. The bottom line: diverse children’s books, when done well and made accessible, can have a real impact on the way children view and treat each other.
My kids won’t want to read that. If your first impulse is to set a book aside as being irrelevant, stop and consider where that impulse comes from. Are you making assumptions about who your children will be able to relate to or empathize with? As adults, our reading choices are often weighed down by preconceptions about whose stories matter to us. Marketing and bookstores reinforce these separations by shelving things like African American Literature separately, implying that some stories are only of interest to certain people. But young readers are often much more open-minded, and need only a great story to engage them. Why won’t your kids be interested in the Sherpa climbers on Everest, a hula-hoopin’ girl from Harlem, or an Asian American girl who can talk to cats? If you don’t know how to get kids or students interested, the #WeNeedDiverseBooks site has a great reading series featuring “If you like X, try Y” comparisons to help you find new ways to pitch great books with diverse characters.
Diverse books aren’t fun. The danger of labeling a book as “diverse” is that it immediately becomes something serious, something people feel like they should read instead of something they want to read. But diverse books aren’t the broccoli of children’s literature, and they shouldn’t be thought of that way. They come in all shapes, sizes, and genres: action, adventure, mystery, sci-fi, literary fiction, and nonfiction. Some are about overcoming racism, while others are about overcoming genetically engineered monsters. If you’re looking for books that feature diverse characters but aren’t about race, School Library Journal has a great list of “culturally generic/neutral” books that feature diverse characters doing things like fighting zombies, celebrating birthdays, and surviving middle school.
It can be a challenge for us as educators and parents to set aside our own assumptions, but the benefits of getting more diverse books into young readers’ hands are great. Diverse books offer children of color a mirror and allow them to feel included and invested in reading, and they build empathy and understanding among all children. And for adults, a little more empathy and understanding couldn’t hurt, either.
(All of the books pictured in this post are from LEE & LOW BOOKS, you can find these and more great multicultural books from http://www.leeandlow.com)
Hannah Ehrlich is the Director of Marketing and Publicity at LEE & LOW BOOKS, a children’s book publisher focusing on diversity. She has spoken about the need for more diverse children’s books on Huffington Post Live, CUNY-TV, CSPAN Book TV, and other places. She also serves as a Publisher Liason to the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement. Find her on Twitter at @LEEandLOW where she discusses children’s books, diversity issues, and chocolate.