The Diversity Gap
We get asked it all the time. “I love your list. But why aren’t there more books with people of color on the covers? Your list needs to meet minority readers where they live. It needs to reflect their experiences. Why aren’t there more books for African-American and Latino and Asian students, readers, families?”
It’s a vital question. Our list is now 100 books strong, and contain more that address this question. But it still doesn’t seem like enough. Why not?
I believe there are three answers to this question…
The first is that good literature doesn’t depend on race or gender. If it’s a great story, has a winning protagonist, poses vital questions, and teaches vital lessons – then it doesn’t matter what color the characters are or where or when it takes place. That’s what literature is. Anyone can benefit from it.
That’s true. But…
The second answer is that we do have some books with minority protagonists that take place in non-white milieu. We’re adding more all the time. We’ve added EllRay Jakes and Keena Ford. We can’t get enough of Christopher Paul Curtis. Esperanza Rising is coming very soon. And we’ve always had In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson and Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.
But it still doesn’t seem enough…
The third answer is that it’s harder than you think. The problem isn’t a dearth of books. The problem is a dearth of titles in one key category – what we call the Sweet Spot.
Here’s the deal with books representing minority protagonists or populations in the United States.
There are plenty of picture books. You can go back to Ezra Jack Keats. They’ve been on librarians’ reading lists for years. At least 3 generations of American schoolchildren have been exposed to and read titles like The Snowy Day and Whistle for Willie and Peter’s Chair. And such books have never really stopped coming. If you look on contemporary recommended reading lists, including year-end reading lists, you’ll see plenty of African-American and Latino titles represented.
There are also plenty of books for older readers – by which I mean books aimed at middle or high school readers. This has been true for some time – going back to classics like Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry – and is no less true today. Christopher Paul Curtis and Jacqueline Woodson and Kwame Alexander are current favorites, but the list of rich, challenging, insightful books aimed at MS and HS readers is long and growing.
The problem is the gap in the middle. There aren’t many/any effective, successful, literary rich books that are aimed at the broad swath of general elementary school readers – Grades 1 thru 5.
There are a lot that try. Christopher Paul Curtis’ books, like The Watsons Go to Birmingingham-1963, was aimed at some elementary school readers. But it’s mostly aimed for, or read by, or to older students, maybe Grades 3-5 if we’re generous.
(I suspect many readers will now tell me that you have read The Watsons to your 8-year-old or 2nd grade class and he/they loved it – and I don’t doubt you for a second. We at Read to Them are all about encouraging and challenging schools and families to read books that challenge readers. But elementary schools, in general, have been unwilling to read these titles with their broad elementary school populations – a key premise of One School, One Book. No matter how funny and engaging, their themes are just a little too rich for K-2 reader/listeners.)
At Read to Them we have shelves of books, lesser known greats like Storm Warriors, by Elisa Carbone, books that involve strong interesting African-American protagonists and situations. These are well-written books well-worthy of being known and loved. But they are not digestible to a broad elementary school audience. (Not like Humphrey.) In general, we have found that the best African-American children’s literature invariably involves some racially challenging theme – current or historical – that gives these books a darker or graver or heavier or more serious tone or character. See, for example, the corpus of the venerable Virginia Hamilton. The books are still rich and funny – but families and schools are unwilling to share them with their 1st graders, unlike like Charlotte’s Web.
We also have a growing list of what we call intro books – books that are shorter and simpler. They are meant as intro readers and at Read to Them we use them as intro readers for families. Schools select these titles when they feel less confident of their own parents’ reading abilities. These titles include Keena Ford, EllRay Jakes, Lola Levine, and the list continues to grow.
(Other series are trying to fill this reading level niche, too. Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver’s popular Hank Zipzer series is now being re-introduced in a lite version called Here’s Hank.)
What we don’t have – and this essay is calling for – are engaging, rich, literary books with African-American or Latino protagonists in the Sweet Spot of children’s literature. For out purposes, I am talking about seemingly ageless classics like Charlotte’s Web and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and modern popular works like Betty G. Birney’s The World According to Humphrey or Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan. We don’t have an African-American Charlotte’s Web. We don’t have a Latino Humphrey.
Why not? I suppose it’s not for lack of trying. I’m sure every children’s author wants to write the next Charlotte’s Web. And we’re all richer for it. But it does seem like the books being published that explicitly address minority milieu are picture books or Y.A. titles.
It cannot be because it cannot be done. Perhaps it’s because Charlotte’s Web and The World According to Humphrey transcend race, like the greatest literature should? Perhaps. I know we never receive negative feedback from schools on that score when they read these titles. But I suspect this answer will not satisfy most of you. There are too many out there, like the We Need More Diverse Books movement, who are desperately seeking more representation here in this space.
Somehow books w/ Asian characters have found an easier time fitting in. I’ve already mentioned In the Year of the Boar and Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. (Grace Lin has just published the third volume in this trilogy.) Linda Sue Park has been working here a while, too, although even strong titles like The Mulberry Project tend to be sought more by middle school audiences than elementary schools.
If you want a final piece of evidence, check out this recommended reading list from the New York Times in 2016, titled “Children’s Books that Tackle Race and Ethnicity.” It starts with The Snowy Day and includes 8 picture books It then lists 9 titles recommended for ages 8-12. Five of them involve Asian characters. The rest include Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover and Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming and Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer, which is festooned with award stickers: Newbery Honor, Scott O’Dell, National Book Award, Corretta Scott King. It’s about 3 African-American girls who leave New York to spend a summer in Oakland in 1969 – a summer of the Black Panthers.
We want our children, all children, to be reading books like these. We want them to be reading about other people and times and places – including the Black Panthers. But parents and schools won’t be reading these titles to children in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade.
The rest of the list, by the way, includes 5 more titles aimed solely at students in middle and high school. The black Charlotte’s Web is not on this list.
Now maybe the Sweet Spot is a niche unique to our One School, One Book family literacy reading program since we ask schools to eschew reading levels and choose titles that can be and will be read and enjoyed by a wide school-age population. But I don’t think so. Hundreds of schools across the United States and Canada are choosing a wide range of titles – over 70 that somehow do fill that need.
So I’ll say here now, I believe we can add more titles by, about, and for American’s minority populations. (We certainly want to.) I believe such titles can and will lead children and families to the rich panoply of characters and milieu across the wide swath of children’s literature.
I appeal to you now. Share your titles with us. Authors – don’t stop trying. We’re still waiting for the black Charlotte’s Web, the Latino Humphrey. Children and families and readers of America – of all colors and races – will benefit and surely thank you. And it may just be the surefire way into the rarefied pantheon of children’s literature.