Author Walter Dean Myers, former Library of Congress National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, wrote about a troubling issue in the New York Times: the lack of diversity in books for children. “Of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people, according to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin.”
Myers speaks very personally, about the impact on him as a child who loved books but sought in vain to find some semblance of the world he knew in them.
I needed more than the characters in the Bible to identify with, or even the characters in Arthur Miller’s plays or my beloved Balzac. As I discovered who I was, a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine. I didn’t want to become the “black” representative, or some shining example of diversity. What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me.
Books did not become my enemies. They were more like friends with whom I no longer felt comfortable. I stopped reading. I stopped going to school. On my 17th birthday, I joined the Army. In retrospect I see that I had lost the potential person I would become — an odd idea that I could not have articulated at the time, but that seems so clear today.
And he makes it clear that it is just as important for children to read about characters of other races as it is to read about their own.
Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books? Where are the future white personnel managers going to get their ideas of people of color? Where are the future white loan officers and future white politicians going to get their knowledge of people of color? Where are black children going to get a sense of who they are and what they can be?
The same day Myers’ essay appeared, the Guardian announced a new policy for reviewing books intended for children. If the book is marketed only to one gender, they will not review it. Literary editor Kay Guest wrote:
I promise now that the newspaper and this website will not be reviewing any book which is explicitly aimed at just girls, or just boys. Nor will The Independent’s books section. And nor will the children’s books blog at Independent.co.uk. Any Girls’ Book of Boring Princesses that crosses my desk will go straight into the recycling pile along with every Great Big Book of Snot for Boys. If you are a publisher with enough faith in your new book that you think it will appeal to all children, we’ll be very happy to hear from you. But the next Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen will not come in glittery pink covers. So we’d thank you not to send us such books at all.
As Myers said, books give us an idea of who we are and what we can be. They also teach us empathy for others. They can do this best when they reflect the world as it is, made up of people with many differences and many connections.