Why Are Children's Books Still So White?

When the Cooperative Children's Book Center released this year's Choices, I was curious to see if their data about diversity in children's literature revealed any changes in two years. In 2005, as we noted on the Fire Escape, the Center received 2800 books and discovered the following statistics:
By African or African/American authors 75
About Africans or African/Americans 149

By American Indian authors 4
About American Indians 34

By Latin American authors 50
About Latin Americans 76

By Asian/Pacific or Asian/Pacific authors 60
About Asian/Pacific or Asian/Pacific Americans 64
In 2007, the Center found the following results among the 3000 or so titles they received:
By African or African/American authors 77
About Africans or African/Americans 150

By American Indian authors 6
About American Indians 44

By Latin American authors 42
About Latin Americans 59

By Asian/Pacific or Asian/Pacific authors 56
About Asian/Pacific or Asian/Pacific Americans 68
In short, not much has changed. We note again that American Indian stories continue to be written mostly by outsiders. Last year, about 12% of Americans were African American, but only 5% of all children's literature featured African American characters. Once again the low numbers and even a decline in Latino books is striking, given that this demographic is the fastest growing and second largest segment of the population in the U.S.A. -- stories featuring Latino characters and themes make up about 2% of all children's books, while the population is more than 15% Latino.

In a recent Entertainment Weekly special report, Why Is Television So White?,  Jennifer Armstrong and Margeaux Watson noted a significant "paling" factor in the fall 2008 television lineup:
According to an Entertainment Weekly study of scripted-programming casts for the upcoming fall 2008 season, each of the five major broadcast networks is whiter than the Caucasian percentage (66.2 percent) of the United States population, as per the 2007 census estimate. And all of the networks are representing considerably lower than the Latino population percentage of 15.2 percent.
But television is doing something about it. Every major network has a high-level veep whose job description is lobbying fellow executives and producers to keep minorities in the game. And they seem to get that the next generation wants and expects to see us mix things up:
...Color-blind casting is something teen-focused networks seem to have down pat: Nary a show has passed through ABC Family or The N without an interracial coupling or a naturally integrated cast ... Those networks' execs say it's a simple matter of economics, that their Gen-Y viewers accept — nay, expect and demand — such a reflection of their multi-cultural lives. ''They're completely color-blind,'' ABC Family president Paul Lee says of younger viewers. ''We've done a lot of things wrong as a nation, but we've clearly done something right here. They embrace other cultures.''
So why aren't we facing up to that reality in the children's book world? Given the CCBC's statistics, it would seem that contemporary children's literature is even less reflective of America's changing demographics than the small screen. Let's face facts: our industry is behind the times when it comes to race and ethnicity, making us seem even more anachronistic than ever in the eyes of the young people we serve.


Maria Lisa said…
I agree with you completely. I have written a series of books titled "The Adventures of Elliott Parks. I am very passionate about this series. Elliott is from a multiracial family. His friends are from all walks of life. At the same time this wonderful eight year old boy teaches us lessons about life. I believe the face of family has changed and I believe my character reflects that change. I have also written a movie about my character Elliott Parks and his friends. But I have been told because I do not have a name like Madonna that my books will never suceed. I was very dissapointed to hear people think like that. I believe in the sucess of Elliott Parks. I believe that Elliott has already been sucessful. For more info go to www.elliottparks.com.
Pooja said…
*standing ovation*
Don Tate II said…
I keep asking myself this question. Not only as it relates to children's books, but TV shows, too. My son loves to watch Disney channel. But most of the shows are about white teenagers. There are a few oddball Black characters, but they usually aren't the cool wannnabe characters. I keep thinking, hasn't the demographics changed? And if anything, there should be more Latinos. But there's not.
Anonymous said…
At my library system, books with minority characters do not circulate well, even with marketing, booktalking, and hand selling. So, if they also don't sell well in the bookstores, maybe there is a reluctance to publish them? I'm not saying it's right and I continue to buy a large variety of books for the system, but maybe that's a factor?
Mitali Perkins said…
Don, I know they're not there yet but it seems to me Disney is at least trying, and is doing a better job than the kid lit industry. But weren't they supposed to release an animated movie featuring their first African-American princess? It was going to be based in New Orleans. What happened to that?

And anonymous, is that true of teen books, too? I wonder if books featuring non-white protagonists don't circulate well in the children's section because parents usually make the choice. If teens are picking, do they go for more diversity given that their generation is more attuned to and relaxed with a mix of people?

I also think a wider buzz is one of the reasons people pick books, and I don't see much targeted marketing, booktalking, and handselling of minority-hero books in the community at large. It's a catch-22, I think. If a publisher chooses to put the big bucks behind a book, it generates buzz which generates sales. Which generates buzz. And so on.

It's hard to change the world one library or bookstore at a time, but please don't give up!
Sean Ashby said…
I started wondering about this myself not long ago. Just for the heck of it, I browsed Amazon's bestseller middle-grade list to see if I could spot any minorities. I gave up after about 200 books, having only spotted one book (that wasn't about something historical, such as slavery). "The Homework Machine" features a group of four kids, with one African American and another Asian (pretty good book, too).

As an aspiring writer, I, for one, am going to make a more conscious effort to include a greater variety in the "casting" of my stories.
Lynnie said…
Yes, this aggravates me no end. I have two white-looking daughters and I have taught children my whole life. I actually now refuse to buy books featuring white characters for my own children or as gifts for other children. I know that sounds extreme, but I just feel like there is absolutely no reason to fear that they will NEVER encounter a white child in a book, whereas there IS the possibility some children might NEVER encounter a non-white person in a book. We did have a pretty huge book collection before I made this decision, though, so we do have plenty of white characters available. I am half Oneida (American Indian tribe) and I would give my left arm to have more GOOD books available with American Indian characters.
Anonymous said…
I'm a Caucasian 58 year old who just spent about three hours on the Internet, most of it on Amazon, looking for children's books to give to 6 year old African American twins. Nothing. If not for animals, I'd have to give them books with covers that indicate we live in a world populated solely by people of European descent. White people have no idea of how minority groups must feel because we don't acknowledge or even realize that such an absence or stereotyping of others exists. Some Asian writers complaining about 40-year books replete with offensive caricatures are taken to task for being PC.
Dani in NC said…
"The Princess and The Frog", the Disney movie starring Disney's first black princess Tiana, is scheduled to be released in December 2009. There were rumors that it was delayed because the original script had the princess start out as a maid to a white woman in the beginning of the movie. This supposed caused a public uproar and a rewrite of the script.

I am a black woman but I have never really sought out multi-racial books for my kids. Because of my hobbies and tastes, I'm used to being the only black person in the room and I guess that translates to my consumption of media. I do get a little jolt of pleasure if the main character is black, though. My kids are really into graphic novels, so it would be nice to see more black heroes in that genre.