When I was 7 years old, I remember watching Aladdin for the first time. Just like most other children my age, I loved watching animated movies, and I begged my parents to watch one at every chance I could get, but something about Aladdin that was different. For the first time, I, a small brown girl, saw myself in the characters in one of those animated movies I loved so much.
As I grew up, I started to draw and illustrate, inspired by all the different books I was reading and TV shows and movies I was watching. One day, as I was doodling, my friend stopped me and asked, “Why don’t you draw brown characters?” I don’t remember my response to her question, but I do remember how I felt–confused and frustrated. If Aladdin had been such a big inspiration for me, and I loved how it felt to be represented, why wasn’t I drawing diverse characters and reading diverse stories? Reflecting back on her question, I now realize that Aladdin, as influential as it was, was only one drop in a sea of stories and movies dominated by characters who didn’t look like me. This ended up having a big impact on how I viewed myself in the world of illustration and story-telling, and I’m wasn’t the only child to feel this way.
The lack of diversity in children’s media is a concerning issue that doesn’t get talked about enough.
Every year since 1985, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s (CCBC) has published a report, Publishing Statistics on Children’s Books about…and by People of Color…Authors and Illustrators, on diverse representation in children’s books. According to the 2018 report, 28% of the 3,644 children’s books analyzed by the CBCC featured a Black, Native, Asian, or Latinx main character. From 2014 to 2018, diverse representation in children’s books has increased by nearly 17%. Despite the positive upward trend, the amount of current statistics on representation still don’t match today’s demographic.
After seeing these statistics, it’s important to now ask, why does it matter? Why do we need more children of color as main characters, and why should parents and teachers show their children or students diverse books?
Well, a 2011 study on the representation of race in children’s books found that diversity in children’s picture books has two major benefits for children of all races, ethnicities, and socio-economic backgrounds.
- For children of color, being able to see themselves in a picture book or story “increase[s] one’s self-concept and awareness of his/her own culture and heritage.” Children of color who see characters that look like them are more likely to explore and develop their own identities.
- All children benefit from diverse representation, as it “teach[es] children to learn to understand and accept different beliefs and value systems and recognize that people have similarities as well as differences,” which can be used to teach “cultural appreciation…caring and compassion, moral-decision making, and social responsibility.”
So, what’s the takeaway? As a parent or teacher, it’s worth the effort to find diverse books to read with your children or students. Diversity in children’s books can play a huge role in the personal, social, and emotional development of children, and it shows children of color that their stories, their cultures, and their heritages matter enough to be beautifully written and drawn.
This past week, Caribu added We Sang You Home, a children’s book written in Plains Cree (a First Nations Canadian language), to our library, meaning that Caribu now has titles in 8 languages. Next time you browse the Caribu library, try reading a book in another language with your child.
And for those of you who may be wondering, I now happily draw characters of all identities!