I recently previewed new releases from major publishers and waded through the lines of author signings at a major “international” conference. I couldn’t help noticing that, while over 40% of the students attending K–12 schools in the U.S. represented racial minorities at the end of this decade, there was an obvious lack of diversity in the books and authors I saw before me. Despite a growth of about 25% in children’s book publishing over the last two decades, only 7% of the children’s books published every year are by or about people of color.
In “The UnBearable Whiteness of Literacy Instruction,” scholar Jane M. Gangi argues that “mirror books” which reflect a child’s own experiences are the most effective when teaching literacy: “Readers who can make text- to-self connections move more quickly along the road to proficient reading.” In their study, “Promoting Equity in Children’s Literacy Instruction,” Sandra Hughes-Hassell, Heather A. Barkley, and Elizabeth Koehler go as far as to say that that the lack of representation of characters and authors of color in children’s book publishing contributes to low reading scores in these communities.
I am by no means suggesting that children of color be exposed exclusively to literature that mirrors only their own experiences. Just like mirror texts hook us in and get us started, window texts impact our understanding of the world around us. As a matter of availability and selection, children of color will always be exposed to literature about characters ethnically and racially different from themselves. After all, literature by and about white people dominates the industry and is most widely available in schools, public libraries, and books stores. That said, if providing windows into the world is important, multi-cultural literature isn’t just for children of color, but for all children.
When I embarked on the journey of writing my first book, I simply wrote my stories– the stories that came as a result of who I was. As I take a look around now, I can’t help feeling a sense of responsibility to be true to that voice. If literature provides “mirrors” and “windows,” then it is important to celebrate diversity, not strip ourselves of it.
Gangi, Jane M. “The Unbearable Whiteness of Literacy Instruction: Realizing the Implications of the Proficient Reader Research.” Multi-cultural Review : Dedicated to a Better Understanding of Ethnic, Racial, and Religious Diversity. 17. 1 (2008): 30.
Hughes-Hassell, Sandra, Heather A. Barkley, and Elizabeth Koehler. “Promoting Equity in Children’s Literacy Instruction.” American Library Association, Dec. 2009. Web., Apr. 2010. <http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/aasl/aaslpubsandjournals/slmrb/slmrcontents/volume12/hughes_hassell.cfm>.