Anna Holmes’ article, “White Until Proven Black: Imagining Race in Hunger Games,” in The New Yorker, is an interesting read that makes the connection between movie goers’ inability to read Rue, as played by Amandla Stenberg, as “innocent” and the racial profiling and racist fear that lead to the murders of Trayvon Martin and countless other black men.
But I especially appreciated being introduced to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education. For 25 years, the CCBC has compiled statistics on the number of children’s books published in the US every year with “multicultural” content. In the beginning, the CCBC counted books written and/or illustrated by African Americans, but the statistics now cover books both by and about African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos. In all, only 300 (8.8%) of the 3,400 children’s books published in the US in 2011 were about people of color. That number has stayed fairly constant (8.6%) since 1994 (the first year CCBC included Asian Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos) when I was 11.
Growing up bi-racial in Cincinnati, Ohio, I loved to read, and I read book after book featuring white heroes and white characters without complaint. But there were certain books that were special to me. Two that immediately jump to mind are In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Bette Bao Lord and How My Parents Learned to Eat by Ina R. Friedman. They were books that I didn’t share with my (white) friends at school and didn’t talk about with my (white) teachers. I didn’t have the vocabulary or awareness to express why they were special to me (or realize that it wasn’t just because Shirley Temple Wong played stick-ball(!) and John the white father got peas on a fork by using mashed potatoes), but I did know that I wanted to keep them private. They were my books. Even when I was far too old for picture books, I remember returning to How My Parents Learned to Eat. My family was different (Chinese father and Jewish mother instead of white father and Japanese mother) but the same. And in Cincinnati, Ohio in the 1990s, the picture book was the closest I came to seeing my life reflected outside of me.
Diversity in children’s literature is important not just to the young readers of color who fail to find themselves represented in the books available at the school library, but to the young white readers who are not exposed to the humanity of people of color through literature. While film and television can represent characters of color in a positive light, literature is unique in that it requires the reader to enter into another characters’ consciousness. By reading the narrative of a character’s thoughts, we have those thoughts. The process demands one to consider that the other could be oneself.
Ours is a society and system the depends on dehumanizing people that are other. When a Congressman says “110 deaths is not alarming to me,” in order to explain his opposition to rules intended to prevent sexual abuse and improve conditions at ICE immigrant detention centers; when pundits justify the murder of a child based on his clothing; when state legislators compare pregnant women seeking abortions to livestock; these are all indications of a system that takes advantage of our inability to see each other as human beings in order to legislate our humanity away or profit off our disunity.
More children’s literature featuring characters of color is not going to eliminate racism and sexism. It’s not going to prevent banks from profiting off the detention of immigrants or repeal laws that deny women agency over their own bodies. It won’t bring Trayvon Martin back to life. I don’t think that reading The Hunger Games is going to make any hardened racist realize that a black person can be the embodiment of innocence. But that’s the thing about children’s literature. It’s what we learn before we’re hardened. It’s what we read when we still have the mental flexibility to wonder and imagine and dream. So, writers and publishers, more please! More Rues, and Shirley Temple Wongs, and Aikos, and Johns. Not just for the children who see themselves in these stories, but also for the children who don’t.