The great American educator, Mary McLeod Bethune, once said, “The whole world opened to me when I learned to read.” As we mark National Family Literacy Month this November, these wise words are perhaps more important than ever.
We know that reading aloud with young children provides meaningful experiences that ignite their imaginations, expand their worldview, and help them gain the skills that lay the foundation for all future learning.
But that requires stories that deepen children’s understanding of others and reflect the diversity of the world around them. For years many authors and educators have been calling out the lack of diversity in children’s books, and now, by using artificial intelligence to analyze the images in picture books, new research from the University of Chicago has provided clear evidence of this problem.
Researchers found that among books that won major industry awards, such as the Newbery or Caldecott medals, child protagonists were depicted with lighter skin than their adult counterparts. The findings underscore the longstanding lack of children’s books written by BIPOC authors and featuring BIPOC characters. These stories face institutional and systemic challenges at every stage of the publishing and distribution process, keeping books off shelves—and out of reach from the young children who would benefit most.
By failing to encourage equal opportunities for writers of color in the publishing industry, and by otherwise limiting children’s access to diverse bookshelves, we teach children of color that their stories and their experiences are not valued by the world around them. We tell them they aren’t adventurers, detectives, and heroes. We create a world far less vivid than the one that children’s book authors create for white children – while simultaneously limiting white children’s understanding of experiences different from their own.
As a mother and advocate for equity in early education, I understand the importance of providing children with books that are both mirrors—reflecting children’s experiences—and windows—a view to lives that are different from our own. And I'm calling on the children’s publishing industry to change.
According to statistics from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC), in 2019 there were more new picture books with primary characters depicted as animals than primary characters who were Black, Native American, Indigenous, Asian American, Latinx, and Pacific Islanders—combined. And more primary characters were white than were animals. Unsurprisingly, these statistics mirror the whiteness of the publishing industry itself: another study from the same year (from Lee & Low Books) found that 76% of publishing professionals were white/caucasian, 81% were straight, and 89% were non-disabled.
This absence of diverse perspectives in publishing deprives BIPOC authors of advocates and ambassadors who understand the value of their stories and who will commit to getting them into the hands of children.
National Family Literacy Month
National Family Literacy Month is one built-in opportunity we have every year to uplift inclusive stories for young children—those that enrich their understanding of the world around them. Jumpstart for Young Children's annual "Read for the Record" campaign is another opportunity. Every year, "Read for the Record" engages over two million preschool-aged children, teachers, and families annually by facilitating the distribution of a selected high-quality children's book that fosters language and social-emotional development to boost early literacy. Initiatives such as these aim to improve data sets like CCBC’s and elevate books like this year’s "Read for the Record" selection, "Amy Wu and the Patchwork Dragon," written by Kat Zhang and illustrated by Charlene Chua, or previous "Read for the Record" books, "Evelyn Del Rey Is Moving Away" by Meg Medina and "Thank You, Omu!" by Oge Mora.
By supporting BIPOC authors and ensuring that books with diverse protagonists reach children’s hands, we can take an important step toward making sure all children are represented in kids’ literature.
We can support BIPOC authors by:
Buying their books.
Requesting them at our local libraries.
Asking teachers to read them in the classroom.
Advocatng for a more diverse publishing industry—one that’s better equipped to empower BIPOC authors and eager to get their work onto the shelves of classrooms and libraries.
In doing so, we will invite young readers into worlds that mirror the vibrancy and diversity of their own.
Children deserve to see themselves represented in the books their parents, teachers, and caretakers read with them. They deserve the experience of celebrating who they are and learning, through reading, to care for one another. Together, we can continue to seek out and support books that affirm for young learners that their stories matter every day of the year.