Why Is Children’s Literature Whitewashed?

In a sharp one-two punch on this weekend’s New York Times Op-ed page, award-winning children’s book writers Walter Dean Myers—arguably one of the most important writers in children’s literature — and his son Christopher Myers make a startling point about the crisis in children’s literature today: it’s whitewashed, to the point that black protagonists don’t even exist.

The statistics are stark: according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, out of 3200 children’s books published in 2013, 93 were about black people. That works out to about two percent of all children’s books, and considering that only a fraction of those books even get into stores, libraries, and in front of readers, that means a whole generation of kids don’t see themselves in children’s literature in America in 2013.

Lack of representation in culture creates a void. It tells whole swaths of people that they’re not important, that their experiences don’t matter (see: Hollywood, blockbusters, “women,” Bechdel test). In “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” Myers Sr. writes about a life-changing experience with James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues”:

I didn’t love the story, but I was lifted by it, for it took place in Harlem, and it was a story concerned with black people like those I knew. By humanizing the people who were like me, Baldwin’s story also humanized me. The story gave me a permission that I didn’t know I needed, the permission to write about my own landscape, my own map.

The whole essay is wildly quotable, sharp on why books and literature matter, what role they can play in human lives, but perhaps the takeaway is this, according to Myers Sr.: “Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?”

Meanwhile, Christopher delves more into where this divide is coming from. Publishers mean well, he writes, mentioning their diversity programs, etc., but the numbers and the business doesn’t lie. The Market could serve as a villain, considering its status as a shadowy cabal of people trying to sell books to kids with old rules, making sure to put white faces on book covers in order to “sell,” even when the characters are black. Personally, I’ve heard some horrifying tales from published friends about push-back between the author and the publisher regarding which (not-white) image to put on the book cover.

In 2009, bestselling author Justine Larbaleister released a book called Liar. As the author wrote on her website, “Micah is black with nappy hair which she wears natural and short. As you can see that description does not match the US cover.” The online outcry over this book’s whitewashed cover led to the publisher redoing the image, replacing it with a black model, true to the book’s content. Whitewashing has been a historic problem in children’s books and YA. And it extends to YA blockbusters-on-film, of course: remember the outcry when Jennifer Lawrence was cast as Katniss in The Hunger Games? When racist Hunger Games fans didn’t understand that Rue was black?

The blockbusting of Young Adult literature — from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games, things sold to children and teens — has led to a boom in the amount of books that are released, but so many fall by the wayside and so many fail. Perhaps now that The Hunger Games (the book) is cooling down sales-wise and the film adaptation of Divergent, despite the strong tracking, feels slightly more The Golden Compass: movie edition than Katniss 2, there may be a chance for realistic YA with characters that aren’t supernatural lovers in a dystopian world to thrive. (Despite Divergent‘s status as a blockbuster, it seemed more engineered to be a bestseller and it hasn’t crossed over to adults in the same fashion as previous phenomena.) These days, YA-as-big-business, echoing the movies’ turn towards superheroes and tentpoles in a time of great financial worry, has led to a lack of books that are set in a “realistic” world, with characters that are normal teens with everyday issues. And with a lack of realistic books, there’s a lack of characters from every race and background in these stories.

But perhaps the thing to do now is to demand more. Demand that publishers work harder, demand to read books that have interesting characters of all races. There is clearly a gap in the marketplace, and someone industrious could come along and make sure that stories about black boys and girls get out into the world. Librarians online are active in searching out stories that give boys and girls in Harlem a map to follow. And in response to the Myers’ essays, author and Twitter gadfly Jennifer Weiner has started a lively discussion about the lack of diversity in children’s lit, writing:

Using the hashtag #colormyshelf, writers, readers, authors, and agents are putting together lists of books that matter, that have black protagonists that are engaged with the world. It’s a small start to what is a frustrating, depressing, and racist status quo, but it’s still a start. And perhaps that frustration will lead to the next Octavia Butler picking up her pen and telling her story. It’s all we can hope for, really.