Why White Kids Need Diverse Books

Storytelling is a unique human experience. Since society began, we have been sharing stories. Some were simple tales of what took place down at the watering hole. Others explained the origins of the universe. These first stories reinforced a group’s worldview, their beliefs, and societal rules. But with our increasingly global society, the need to understand and normalize other cultures is paramount. The clarion call for diverse books is sounding more now than ever before.

The Storytelling Bug

Our love of stories starts at birth and doesn’t end until we shove off this mortal plane. I remember begging my mother for one more story at bedtime. Not because I didn’t want to sleep, but because I wanted to hear another story. I loved to be read to, so when I learned to do this for myself, I spent pretty much every moment I could with my nose in a book. Today, my priorities have shifted. I now spend more time writing than I do reading, and most of what I read are children’s book at bedtime to my own child. He too begs for just one more. Most of the time I say no, but sometimes I bend the rules.

I find myself getting a thrill every night as bedtime approaches. What adventure will we go on tonight? What will we learn? Who will we meet? Granted, my son has a handful of favorite books we end up reading over and over, but every so often, I talk him into reading something new or long forgotten. These occasions usually end up being the nights I let him sneak in a third book. Sometimes he lets me pick.

To get him out of his Blue Hat, Green Hat and Jake and the Neverland Pirates fixation, I take him to the library. Here I use the opportunity to steer him to new authors and subjects. While he’s playing over in the corner or busy with story time, I browse the shelves in search of books that provide a different worldview. I look for diverse characters, female leads, and foreign myths.

The evidence is plentiful as to the benefits of reading fiction, especially to children who are developing social skills. Fiction teaches us how to deal with new situations, teaches us empathy, and seeing the world through other lenses and perspectives. Fiction is brain food.

Why We Need Diverse Books

Most of the publishing timeline is dominated by male authors and characters. Women either published under masculine pen names or changed their first names into initials, making them androgynous. These tactics are alive and well today. One need look no further than J.K Rowling to see this in action. Rowling was urged against using her first name, Joanne, to publish her now famous series. The thought was that boys would be dissuaded from reading Harry Potter if they knew a woman had written it. Ah, sexism. You can go eff yourself.

The same goes for authors of color who create characters of color. The dominating belief in publishing circles is that most books are bought by White readers and the thought is that they will be less likely to purchase a book if the characters are not White (systemic racism, you can go eff yourself too). Yet, statistics show a growing shift in buying power.

The Diversity Gap

In September of 2015, Neilson published data compiled on multi-cultural buyers and found that the data didn’t support what US publishers touted. Neilson’s analysis revealed that US Black, Latinx, and Asian communities showed the most growth in buying power.

In another study conducted by Madison’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center on the distribution of children’s literature found that while 37% of people living in the US are non-White, 93% of children’s books feature White or non-human characters and only 10% of children’s books published since 1994 to contained “multi-cultural content”.

While it’s true the number of diverse books doesn’t come close to representing the US population, a shift is taking place, however glacial, it is happening. As the buying power of non-White communities continues to grow, so will the number of titles from minority authors featuring diverse characters.

 

Bridging the Gap

It is with sexism and white privilege in mind, that I strive to fill my son’s library with books touting diverse characters. I don’t necessarily look for books with major historical significance. I tend to steer away from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriet Tubman in favor of books which normalize the minority experience. When he gets a bit older, we’ll delve into historical and political issues. For now, it’s Max and the Tag-Along Moon (beautiful illustrations), Splash, Anna Hibiscus! (one of my favorites), The Hula Hoopin’ Queen (gleefully wonderful), Corduroy (a classic), Bus Stops (simple and sweet), and A Tale of Two Daddies (demystifying gay parents).

Reading Diverse Books to White Kids

In Dakisha Slater’s piece in Mother Jones, The Uncomfortable Truth About Children’s Books, she takes a closer look at why we need diversity in books, not just for minority children to see themselves represented, which is important, but also so white children will find it easier to relate to their non-White counterparts.

Children need diverse books to help them navigate an increasingly global society. Economists claim this real-world preparation through literature gives children the ability to understand differing worldviews, and is a vital component to our nation’s stability (Slater, 2017).

Similar as to turning to children’s books to explain death, cancer, or trauma, turning to them to normalize those who look different from us will help bridge the gap in understanding. Books provide a safe platform to discuss abstract and difficult ideas. Be it bullying, the only Asian kid in the class, anger management, or the arrival of a new baby, books are a beautiful and easy way to explore life and the change it poses. This type of bibliotherapy promotes understanding in children and adults too.

The Verdict

So, should we White parents read diverse literature to our White children? YES! Read diverse literature to your White children. Teach them how to respect other cultures, languages, ability levels, and skin colors. Teach them that we are bound by our similarities not separated by our differences. And while reading books containing minority characters, read them the same way you would any other book. Don’t point out the diverse characters as different from your child. Don’t make the diverse characters special or unique from your child. These notions solidify the idea of segregation and can serve to widen the divide. Read the story like any other story. If your child asks questions, answer them in plain language as you would with any other book. Don’t over think it.

Reading a diverse catalog of books to your children will prepare them for life’s many journeys. It will aid them in navigating the rough waters of privilege, disenfranchisement, bigotry, love, and friendship. Reading helps to shape a young mind, guiding them in decision making. By reading diverse literature, we grow as people, we broaden our experiences. To make this happen, We Need Diverse Books.

How to Support Biblo Diversity

Let your wallet do the talking by buying diverse books. Do some research and seek out non-White authors. Look for books with non-White characters, with disabled characters, with female leads. Check diverse books out for the library. If you’re having trouble finding diverse books on your library shelves, talk to your librarian about carrying more diverse books. And lastly, rate and review the diverse books you read on social media sites like Goodreads, Amazon, and GooglePlay as well as your library website. This will send the message to publishers that more diversity is desired.

Diversity has been lacking in the book world for far too long. It’s time we as readers, parents, and humans make a concerted effort to change this.

Cynthia Varady

Cynthia Varady

Cynthia is an award-winning writer and co-owner of the book review and writing website, DuelingLibrarians.net. She currently resides in Northern California with her husband and son. When she's not toddler chasing or writing, Cynthia can be found reading, playing video games, or baking. Cynthia has her BA in English Literature from Sonoma State University, and a Masters in Library and Information Science from San Jose State University. Occasionally, Cynthia does voice acting for casual video games, and is the voice of Stella from the Aveyond series. Presently she is working on a young adult fantasy novel.

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