A graduate of Atlanta’s Lovett School and Dartmouth College, Kabir Sehgal is the author "Jazzocracy,” "Coined: The Rich Life of Money and How Its History Has Shaped Us," and "Walk in My Shoes: Conversations Between a Civil Rights Legend and His Godson on the Journey Ahead" with Andrew Young.
In today’s guest column, he decries the lack of diversity in children’s literature.
By Kabir Sehgal
Four years ago, when my Indian-American friend had a baby, I wanted to get her a children’s book about India that she could share with her newborn. Because she gave birth in spring, I searched online for books about Holi, the Indian springtime festival of colors, which is celebrated or at least known about by hundreds of millions of people around the world. The few that I found were published in India and not intended for an American audience. My hunt for books about Diwali, an even more well-known festival, was also fruitless. With 3 million Indians in the United States, why were there so few books about this culture?
There isn’t just a dearth of stories about Indian practices and traditions. According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, which tracks diversity in literature for young people, only about 25 percent of the children’s books that were published in 2017 were about minorities: either the protagonist or a central character was a person of color. Even fewer books, just 15 percent, were written by authors who are minorities.
These numbers are out of step with American demographics, which is becoming ethnically and racially more diverse. By 2045, the white population is projected to be a minority group, comprising 49.9 percent of the overall population. This trend is most acute within the youngest generation. Minority babies, those who were non-white, made up more than half of all the newborns in 2016. Some 50.3 percent of Americans younger than five years old are minorities, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And the population of mixed race babies is expected to swell from 5.3 percent to 11.3 percent by 2060.
Despite the changing composition of America’s population, book publishing professionals are mostly white. According to an industry survey, 82 percent of editors, 83 percent of salespeople, and 86 percent of executives are white. Even 89 percent of book reviewers are white. This isn’t to say that this industry is incapable of publishing works with more diversity, but that children’s book professionals should be more mindful not just of the demographic shifts in the marketplace but the role that books play in shaping the minds and self-identities of young people.
Children’s books need to be more diverse because our kids should have more opportunities to identify with and learn from people who look like them in the stories that they read. Young people feel a tremendous amount of affirmation when they see folks similar to them starring as central characters.
I know this because I read the children’s books that I write with my mother to dozens of kids every year. When I read our story about Raksha Bandhan, the Indian holiday in which girls make thread bracelets or rachis that symbolize the bond between brothers and sisters, the eyes of Indian-American children light up with interest and pride. “I want to make a rakhi for my brother,” said one girl in the audience. “What present should I give my sister?” asked a Latino boy.
Moreover, children’s books expose kids to other cultures. The sooner a child learns about different people and practices, the more prepared they will be for when they encounter them in the real world, which is bound to happen considering America’s quickly changing demographics. Children’s books enlarge understanding and encourage imagination among young people. More “woke” books would stretch children to think about people, places, and ideas with which they may be unfamiliar.
Indeed, the publishing industry is making strides. Simon and Schuster’s imprint Salaam Reads publishes books about Muslims. Agate’s Bolden Brooks publishes books by and about African-Americans. KitaabWorld specializes in selling books about South Asia. There’s even a grassroots movement which began in 2014 with the Twitter hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks and has transformed into the organization We Need Diverse Books that promotes and distributes multicultural literature.
We readers, educators, and parents ought to welcome these efforts. And we should also encourage those from other cultures to write and share stories of their own. This will hopefully and eventually make children’s books more diverse and also the world that our children imagine.
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