If you’re a parent of a child of color, finding relatable kids’ books can be something of a challenge. Just ask Lori Tharps, an African-American journalism professor and the mom of three bilingual, bicultural children. “I’m not trying to make my kids read about slaves all the time,” she says. “A black wizard story would be nice. Flat Stanley could be Asian or Latino. But they’re not there… at least it would be one less blond-haired, blue-eyed heroine or hero to worship.” A survey of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013 — out of a total of 5,000 — found that only 67 were by African-American authors, and only 93 titles centered on black characters. That’s the lowest number of black protagonists since 1994, when the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison began tracking that data. The numbers were similarly abysmal for children’s books by or about American Indians, Asians, and Latinos — proving that publishing, like the film and TV industry, has a long way to go when it comes to fostering and promoting diversity.
So why are bookshelves so whitewashed? For one thing, children’s books about diverse characters don’t sell (though there are exceptions, such as Octavia Spencer’s middle-grade mystery, Randi Rhodes, Ninja Detective: The Case of the Time-Capsule Bandit). Says one children’s-book executive, “If we thought there was a demand for more nonwhite characters, we would try to fill it.” Sales can “certainly impact visibility and output,” says Rosemary Brosnan, editorial director at HarperCollins Children’s Books. Award-winning Mexican-American writer Gary Soto knows this all too well: He had to end his 20-year career writing children’s books due to low sales. “I think many buyers think, ‘We already have a Gary Soto book in our library or classroom; we don’t need any more.'” Tharps, a former EW staffer, says, “Part of this problem could be solved if the great books that are out there that feature characters of color were given more promotional push by publishers and not shoved into the multicultural section.”
Another factor: Children’s-book editors are predominantly white females and traditionally “publishing houses are run by white men,” explains Robin Adelson, executive director of the Children’s Book Council. “Hiring a diverse array of people would help reflect the different children we’re publishing for.” Afro-Latina author Veronica Chambers sees the ranks of older editors giving way to twentysomethings who often dismiss the absence of diverse authors with what she calls an “it is what it is” mentality. “If editors are not cultivating relationships with writers of different backgrounds, then it makes it difficult for writers in a vacuum to do something with commercial sensibility,” she says. “What the poor numbers say most graphically is that they really don’t care.”
But it can be tough to find authors of color, says Scholastic executive editor Andrea Davis Pinkney, who is African-American and has worked in the field for nearly 30 years. “It takes significant effort to find authors [of any race] who can tell great stories that will stand the test of time,” she says. Then there’s the challenge of finding books that children across all ethnicities actually want to read. “I’m the mother of two teenagers who inform me there needs to be more for African-American boys that’s fun and exciting,” Pinkney says. Tharps agrees, saying kids crave books that “feature characters doing exciting, interesting, brave, or smart things. It gets hard to find the series books, the comics, the budding romances that feature black, brown, and other faces.”
A campaign for books that reflect the rapidly shifting demographics of this country — where children of color will outnumber white children by 2019 — has begun to gain traction. In a New York Times op-ed, best-selling children’s-book author Walter Dean Myers argued that “books transmit values…. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?” His son, illustrator Christopher Myers, echoed his appeal, citing “the apartheid of children’s literature.” Even novelist Jennifer Weiner has championed the cause, asking book lovers on Twitter to join her in a campaign to promote nonwhite characters with the hashtag #colormyshelf. “Reading is everything,” says Tharps. “Books often give us our first glimpse of how other people experience the world. How do we expect white kids to understand the lives of Asian, Latino, African, and Indian kids if everything they read is about kids who look and sound like them? The way things stand now, this is a lose-lose situation for everyone.”