Thousands of English teachers and reading specialists took over the Baltimore Convention Center recently for the annual conference of the National Council of Teachers of English and its affiliated Assembly on Literature for Adolescents workshop. There I heard the same startling statistics over and over. Sadly, it wasn’t the first time the numbers had been brought up at a meeting of book lovers. I had been hearing the same statistic for almost a year at conferences all over the country, including the National Women’s Studies Association, the Kweli literary conference, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and Baltimore’s CityLit Festival.
Panelists, keynote speakers and attendees all referred to — and some handed out copies of — a graphic released by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, which annually compiles and analyzes the number of books featuring children of color. It was not hard to see why everyone kept talking about it. The numbers were so ugly that we just couldn’t get over it.
In 2018, just 1% of children’s books featured an American Indian/First Nation protagonist. That’s 23 out of 3,134 books published. Only 5%, or 170 books, starred Latinx children, while Asian Pacific Islanders and Asian Americans were the central characters in 7%, or 218 books. African American children were the main characters in 10%, or 301 of these books.
The real shocker and insult was that animals were featured as characters more often than children of color. That’s right, 27% of books published in that year featured an animal as the protagonist. That’s 864 books, more than those featuring children of color combined. The number featuring white children is 50%, or 1,558 books.
Believe it or not, these numbers actually represent progress. The CCBC, based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has been compiling these statistics since 1985, and the numbers have slowly but steadily improved. In 2015, for example, the number of books featuring Latinx children was 2.4%, African American children 7.6% and white children 73.3%.
Many of the scholars, educators and writers at the various conferences were hardly surprised by the data. There is quite a bit of buzz around terms like “representation,” “inclusivity” and the ubiquitous “diversity.” But the publishing world isn’t doing a good job of practicing what they preach. As the legendary editor and publisher Chris Jackson said in a speech to the Association of American University Presses, “I’m often asked to speak about a thing that doesn’t actually exist: diversity in publishing.”
Jackson is one of the few African American editors working in the industry. In the children’s publishing world, the story is the same. Most editors, and thus most mentors and gatekeepers, are white. The lack of diversity in the publishing has real-world effects. Engagement with reading, a primary indicator of future success, is much lower among children of color. In fact, the reading scores of African American, Native American and Latinx children regularly lag behind those of white and Asian American children.
This is not, as some might erroneously conclude, because children of color do not enjoy reading. It’s because books exclude them the way society does. I have had this experience in my own life. I enjoyed reading, but as a child, I felt disconnected from books because they simply didn’t reflect my life. Favorites like “Anne of Green Gables,” the “Nancy Drew” mysteries and even the “Ramona Quimby” books reminded me that I was a mere observer on the sidelines of white life.
And if the self-esteem and well-being of children of color does not move us, here’s something else: Children from privileged backgrounds also need to see children from marginalized groups represented on the page. Books are mirrors, but they’re also windows into other people’s worlds, according to Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s wonderful metaphor. White children also require authentic stories that are written by authors from marginalized communities in order to break through their own bubble. For in that terrifying bubble, people of color are caricatures who exist on a screen, in a meme or in a news headline.
I look forward to the CCBC’s 2019 statistics. I hope the numbers will be more promising, but I fear that the progress, if any, will be incremental. Reading is fundamental, but we still need to prove that it’s fundamental for all children.
Susan Muaddi Darraj, winner of a 2016 American Book Award, teaches creative writing at Johns Hopkins University and is an associate professor at Harford Community College. Her forthcoming children’s book series, “Farah Rocks,” starring a Palestinian American protagonist, will be published in January. She wrote this for The Baltimore Sun.