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Multiculturalism in Children's Books in America

Updated on August 14, 2015
PAINTDRIPS profile image

As a children's book illustrator, Denise has many things to say about the process, her struggles, and children's books on the market today.

Diversity

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Statistics show

I just read some disturbing statics and I can’t seem to move on without discussing them. As many of you know, I have a real love of children’s books and I am pursuing a career as a children’s book illustrator. Because of this these statics bother me even more than they might some other parents.

In 2012 there were approximately 3,600 children’s books published in the United States. Of those about 3% were about African-American main characters; 1.5% were about Latinos; less than 1% were about Native Americans; and 2% were about Asian Pacific Americans. That leaves 93% of all children’s books published in this diverse country about Caucasian Americans. Sure some books had multicultural secondary characters or supporting characters. But the main character is almost always Caucasian.

How is this possible? In a country with an African American President and multicultural citizens that will soon outnumber the Caucasian population, how can we allow this kind of oversight?

Infographic

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Emotional

From the storybook called "Mr Sticky."
From the storybook called "Mr Sticky." | Source
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Skippy Jon Jones

U.S. Census Bureau

According the projections of the US census, the non-Hispanic white population is projected to peak in 2024, at 199.6 million, and then slowly decrease from 2024 to 2060. During this same time the Hispanic population is projected to more than double, from 53.3 million in 2012 to 128.8 million in 2060.

The African American population is projected to increase also from 41.2 million to 61.8 million in this same time frame. This population would rise from 13.1 percent of the total population to 14.7 percent.

The Asian population is projected to more than double like the Hispanic community, from 15.9 million in 2012 to 34.4 million in 2060, with the percentage of the nation’s total climbing from 5.1 percent to 8.2 percent.

The Native Americans and Alaska Natives would also increase mre than half from now to 2060, from 3.9 million to 6.3 million. That is rising from 1.2 percent of the total population to 1.5 percent.

Multicultural

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Kim's first published book.
Kim's first published book. | Source

Getting published

What does this mean? Well, in just 40 years the United States will be a minority-majority nation, for the first time in 2043. The minority population, which is now at 37 percent of Americans, will comprise 57 percent of the population by 2060. These are of course, just projections but even if things go slower than projected, this is inevitable.

In light of these statistics we need to address the real problem with children’s books inequity. What is the problem? Are ethnic writers and illustrators that hard to find? Are there no African Americans writing about the African American journey in this country? Actually, I don’t think so. My step-son, Kevin McGill (who is African American) is writing the most awesome Young Adult fantasy adventure series but he has had to self-publish because no established publishers would take a risk on this new author. My step-daughter, Kim McGill (also African American), has written and illustration a fabulous first reader children’s picture book that she submitted to several publishers, including Lee & Low, who only publish non-white children’s books. But she was rejected by all and had to self-publish also. So is the trouble that there aren’t enough writers and illustrations out there, or is it the publishers who are short-sighted? I have to say it must be the publishers who just refuse to see the signs of changing times.

Reading is necessary

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Why do we need multicultural main characters anyway?

If you are a lover of books like I am, you have probably experienced living with and empathizing with main characters. I have been Anne of Green Gables, Alice falling down the rabbit hole and Lucy meeting the fawn Tumnus for the first time in the snow. One of my favorite movies is The Never Ending Story. I especially relate to the part where the boy is hiding from the bullies in the bookshop and the old man says, “Have you ever been Captain Nemo attacked by the giant squid?” They boy answers of course he has. The man asks, “Weren’t you scared you wouldn’t survive?” And the boy says it’s just a story. Is it? Just a story? In books we can be people, experience things and go places we may never get to in real life. Yet if you don’t get to experience with the main character, if you cannot empathize with him or identify with him at all, you cannot get past the main point of the story. I never really thought about it much because, well, I’m white. I can be Anne of Green Gables even though I’ve never been redheaded, but she is close enough that I can identify with her. Can a little black girl identify with Anne? Can a Hispanic girl who has to speak English at school and Spanish at home identify with Alice talking with a rabbit in a blue waistcoat? Probably not.

The magic of reading

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Relating to characters

Just for the fun of it I asked some friends what they thought about this inequity. I asked, first, if they had a favorite children’s book growing up that they felt they could identify with. They had some favorite books but all of them said they couldn’t really identify with the main character, as she/he was white. Sure Fancy Nancy has a black best friend, but the book is about Fancy Nancy. One girl said her favorite book was Amelia Bedelia because of her play with the minefield of the English language, which must be fun for a girl who was learning English as a second language. When Amelia made a sponge cake she used real sponges, when she pitched a tent, she tossed it into the woods. It makes perfect sense that this was a fun book, but not one where she could actually relate or empathize with the main white character; just laugh at her.

We Need Diverse Books

Ask people yourself

Just for the fun of it I asked some friends what they thought about this inequity. I asked, first, if they had a favorite children’s book growing up that they felt they could identify with. They had some favorite books but all of them said they couldn’t really identify with the main character, as she/he was white. Sure Fancy Nancy has a black best friend, but the book is about Fancy Nancy. One girl said her favorite book was Amelia Bedelia because of her play with the minefield of the English language, which must be fun for a girl who was learning English as a second language. When Amelia made a sponge cake she used real sponges, when she pitched a tent, she tossed it into the woods. It makes perfect sense that this was a fun book, but not one where she could actually relate or empathize with the main white character; just laugh at her.

The men I talked to about this stated that boys don’t empathize as much as girls do with a character but they also can’t identify with the white main characters. Yet these same men don’t mind picking up light sabers and pretending to have a Jedi battle. Maybe men relate better to movies than books. That’s going to have to be something I examine in a different article.

More Diversity

Illustration from Kim McGill's "The Trouble with Being Normal."
Illustration from Kim McGill's "The Trouble with Being Normal." | Source
Illustration from Kim McGill's "The Trouble with Being Normal."
Illustration from Kim McGill's "The Trouble with Being Normal." | Source

Contributing factors to illiteracy

Is this one of the contributing factors to the problems with illiteracy and slow learning epidemic, especially among boys? Can it be something as simple as books don’t interest these children because they just can’t relate to some white kid having a terrible, horrible, very bad day, when they have terrible, horrible, very bad months and years? When I read I Know Why Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, I cried with the little girl over her toothache and was horrified at what happened at her mother’s house. I wanted to believe this was an isolated life and that few people actually have to face these kinds of horrors, which have never touched my life except from the words in books. But I know it is not so. There are many in this country who live this kind of life daily and would not see this as unusual; people who don’t get enough to eat or have a descent place to sleep on a regular basis.

“I think there are a lot of factors at play when we talk about lack of diversity in children’s books. In one of the videos I shared, an African-American author said she didn't know becoming an illustrator was an option growing up because the diversity wasn't there. There is likely a large number of creative children from various ethnic backgrounds that don't see themselves represented and get deterred from becoming future artists and illustrators. Growing up all the books I read and cartoons I watched contained mostly Caucasian characters, it wasn't just encouragement from my parents that pushed me into art, but a subconscious perception that it was acceptable. Diversity in children’s book is of course important for all children of all backgrounds and not just those who would become authors and artists. And this is of course just one hypothetical possibility for lack of diversity.” Comment written by Terrah B.

Do you believe that more multicultural children's books are needed?

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More Books

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Spice of life.

As my friend Terrah wrote, some children may not dream of illustrating as a career simply because they have no idea that is an option as a career path. Although this is a sad commentary, I feel it means career councilors have failed somewhere to direct children toward their strengths. Could it mean that we simply have neglected the arts in schools for far too long in favor of sports? I am biased in this area knowing that the arts such as painting, music, creative writing and theater, are the first to be cut when budgets get tight, but football and other team sports are last to be cut.

I think when an entire segment of the American experience in our population has failed to be represented to children, then the whole world will be poorer for it. The American experience is more than just a white bread meal. It includes flavor, spice and color. We need this for all our betterment. But that’s just my opinion.

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    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 3 years ago from Fresno CA

      Dolores, this is sad but true. I wrote and illustrated a book about the birth mother of adopted children. I knew several families who told me there was nothing out there for the questions children had about their birth mother. However, the publishers all told me that the market for a book like that (though admittedly needed) was too small to be profitable. So basically they are telling me if they can't make money they won't publish. Unfortunate evil to have to follow the money instead of the heart of children.

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 3 years ago from East Coast, United States

      It is a shame that many children cannot find themselves in books. Even as adults, we prefer characters that we can relate to. The sad truth must be in the money. Who buys kids' books? Follow the money. Book publishing is a business and they will print books they think will sell.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 3 years ago from Fresno CA

      Jodah, thanks so much for responding. I'm glad to hear you are working at your craft. It's one of those things that is very hard to wear all the hats. A publisher would be taking care of all the advertising and sending your book to libraries and book stores and taking 90% of the profit. When you self-publish, you have to be the writer, publisher, advertiser and promoter but you get 90% of the profit. It depends on where your priorities lie. Good luck.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Yes Denise...I am considering it. I have to become a doer and not a thinker. However some feedback from others who have self-published children's books has been less than encouraging. I have been hired by someone else to write the text for two children's picture books so far. The idea for the story was given to me and I had to write the text (one in verse)and an artist hired to illustrate it. You may be right though..it is probably the wave of the future.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 3 years ago from Fresno CA

      Jodah, Have you thought about self publishing? It is really easy and affordable (free in most cases unless you want to pay someone to illustrate). I would think it is the wave of the future and most really good books will soon be self-published rather than company published. Something to think about. Thanks for visiting.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      I think this a problem in most countries. I know here in Australia there are quality books written with aboriginal children as the main characters usually portraying "Dreamtime" stories, but the percentage would be very low compared to Caucasian main characters. With our increasing multicultural communities the percentage needs to change with the times. Great hub. I have written a few children's stories but have never had any published, though I tend not to describe my character's physical appearance..leaving that to the reader's imagination. I have not had any illustrated which would obviously make a difference to how they were interpreted. Great hub, voted up.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 3 years ago from Fresno CA

      I've seen this debate go on and on, but the plain facts are that publishers aren't publishing a good representation of the multicultural climate in this country. We need to rise up as consumers and say we want MORE.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 3 years ago from Fresno CA

      RonElFran, thank you for your comment. I appreciate that this disconnect was difficult for a child. I wonder if you have a solution that would help for future generations.

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 3 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Your question about identifying with the main character of a story made me think back to my own experiences growing up in the 1950s and 60s. I was a voracious reader, and of course almost none of the characters (main or supporting) I read about were black. I think I did identify with them while reading the stories - that's what made the reading so engrossing. But that identification didn't carry over into real life. There was a disconnect that prevented me from really seeing myself in those characters. It's hard to explain, and the disconnect was not absolute, but as I look back, it was definitely there.

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