Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Have We Done Enough? Diversity in Children's Lit by Tina Cho

Note: I’m writing this from a mom, teacher, and author’s perspective.

            December 19, 2023, my 18-year-old son, a freshman in college, faced racial discrimination by two high schoolers at our local YMCA, where he has been a member over the past few years. He reported it to the person at the front desk, who alerted the owner/boss. Aside from her filing a report with her supervisor and just talking to the boys, I don’t think anything was done.

            My sister said my niece, an 8th grader, who is half Korean, but doesn’t look Asian, receives racial discrimination daily at her school, such as a book being thrown in her face. I asked why she doesn’t report it. “It will make matters worse,” I was told.

            As a mom (and aunt), I’m outraged. How can racial discrimination still be going on, especially among youth? Just turn on the news, and we’ll all see it sadly is.

            Putting on my teacher hat, (I’m a kindergarten teacher at a public school), I’ve seen over the past years, literature slowly changing. More books showing people of color have been published. Yay! Librarians have been challenged to check the number of books on their shelves featuring white characters versus people of color. However, many diverse books seem to focus more on a cultural holiday or how to say someone’s name, rather than just a regular story that happens to have a diverse cast of children. In my classroom, I read lots of books that feature children of color, especially those represented in my class, so kids can not only see themselves, but to make diversity the norm. I saw evidence of this when a couple of my Caucasian students drew their parents with Crayola’s skin-colored crayons, but colored dark skin. Ha!



            The same day my son faced discrimination, in my inbox was the listing of acquired books in Publisher’s Weekly’s Children’s Bookshelf. I read through the picture book section, and noticed that most picture books listed had animal characters. How can we teach diversity if most children’s books feature animal characters? Don’t get me wrong—my kindergartners and I love reading books with animals. But, if we want students to accept each other, they need to see children of color in books, not just animals. (And I know, reporting in PW isn't a total representation of books, and some reportings were acquired long ago.) 

Data: There were 9 picture books listed in the weekly list.

4/9 or 44% featured animals.

2/9 or 22% featured white characters as far as I could tell.

1/9 or 11% featured a black character.

2/9 or 22% featured Asian characters (but like I said, they seem to be holiday or folklore themed, not about current life).

Now, putting on my author hat, I say, we’re not done in this area. Sure, a lot more diverse books books have published over the years. You can see stats for 2022 from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center here. I don’t think the 2023 data is available yet. And Scientific American has a recent article titled, “Are Children’s Books Improving Representation?” My advice to illustrators is—please don’t change an author’s characters to animals. Instead, illustrate with a diverse cast of races. My advice to authors, especially those of color, not only write stories about your culture’s traditions, holidays, and folklore, but also current everyday life stories that feature a family/character of color. Teachers need books showcasing diversity for all different topics, not just when it comes to holidays, etc… A good read is “Teachers Push for Books with More Diversity, Fewer Stereotypes” in Education Week. I appreciate Instagrammer & video creator Maya Lê of Maistorybooklibrary who showcases children’s books with people of color in themed topics as well as other Instagram reviewers who highlight these books. Thank you so much for what you do for educators and parents.

From Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream speech”:  I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. 

I'm thankful my forthcoming picture book, God's Little Astronomer, features characters of color in a nonfiction book. More about that later, in another post. 

Thank you, Grog Readers, for sticking with us. Please support people of color creators by checking out their books (or buying them) and sharing them on social media, reading them to your kids and grandkids and students.

And if you haven't yet, please subscribe to our blog in the blue box at the top right side of this site! Thank you!


Tina Cho is first a teacher of 20 years with a master's degree. She is the author of Rice from Heaven: The Secret Mission to Feed North Koreans (Little Bee Books 2018), Korean Celebrations (Tuttle 2019), My Breakfast with Jesus: Worshipping God around the World (Harvest House 2020), The Ocean Calls: A Haenyeo Mermaid Story (Kokila/Penguin Random House 2020), God’s Little Astronomer (Waterbrook 2/20/2024) & God’s Little Oceanographer 2025. Her lyrical middle grade graphic novel, The Other Side of Tomorrow, debuts from Harper Alley (11/12/2024). After living in South Korea for ten years, Tina, her husband, and two kids reside in Iowa where Tina also teaches kindergarten. 

13 comments:

  1. Hi, Tina, this is a very important post and one that is ripe for discussion. Ty for the links, stats & food for thought!

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  2. This is an excellent post, Tina! Thank you. I hope picture book authors and illustrators will take it to heart.

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    1. Yes, I do too! Thank you, Beth, for your encouragement.

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  3. Thank you for sharing the real world and personal examples you've experienced. Sometimes I'm encouraged by the increasing diversity in casts of characters, but...when you turn on the news...well, it's pretty clear that it's not playing out in real life. Too many people don't read, or don't read widely to their kids, and bad behavior repeats through generations. Like so many things, it falls to the teachers to nurture open minds, acceptance, inclusion, critical thinking, and empathy. Thank you for all you do!

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  4. Great post, Tina! We need MORE books that represent the people living around us. Once upon a time it was a huge push to get books featuring women and girls in STEM and other roles beyond being the mom. I grew up with Dick & Jane and hated those books with a passion! I remember nonfiction book illustrations about scientists and explorers all being boys (you can be a scientist!) and men. So yeah - we need more diverse books for the diversity of children reading them.

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    1. Ah, thanks, Sue! I also grew up reading Dick & Jane, & Nan! Yes, publishing has come a long ways, but still has a ways to go, IMO.

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  5. Thanks for this post. I am passionate about representation of disability in picture book which is also sorely lacking (3.4%) compared to 25% of people having a disability. I am both disabled and the mama of a child with a disability and I wrote a book when I couldn't find any representation in the market. In my book "Why Me, Mama? A Children's book about the Disability experience" I chose to use anthropomorphic animals to represent actual children with various disabilities. I did this for a few reasons. 1. Since each character was inspired by a real child, I wanted to give a level of separation and privacy, especially since a toddler cannot give consent and an animal with their name is different than their true likeness in a book. 2. 44% of picture books feature animals for good reason - children really like animals. 3. Animals create a bit of emotional distance - when discussing sometimes difficult topics - not having a human character can sometimes be helpful.

    I do think that more representation with human characters of diverse characters that are authentically and appropriate would be wonderful and very needed.

    Best,
    Katie
    Author of Why Me, Mama?

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  6. Hi Katie, Oh, that's great you wrote a book about a disability. I've noticed more books are featuring either a disabled character or special needs child. Yes, I understand what you're saying about using animals. I think it should be up to the creative team's plans and purpose for the story to decide what characters to use. Thanks for chiming in!

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  7. Tina, thanks for your thoughtful post. I'm so sorry about the discrimination that has touched your family. I do believe books are powerful, and that they're making a difference and can continue to do so, for kids and their families.

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  8. Beautifully said, Tina. Sorry to hear what happened to your son.

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