This week, I came across yet another conundrum in the education world. A study published by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center found that in 2016, only 278 of the 3,400 children’s books published featured African-American characters. 736 of the 3,400 books featured African-American, Native American, Asian, or Hispanic characters. I have to say, it did bother me that the study didn’t separate out books featuring white or non-human characters. Could the study stand to be a little more quantitative? Perhaps. Nonetheless, the qualitative idea is true–there simply isn’t enough diversity in children’s literature.
As a teacher, I found this to be terrible! No matter how much we preach diversity, how effective is it, if students can’t see themselves in the literature they read? So, what can we do to solve the problem? How can we infuse more diversity into books? The biggest obstacles standing in the way are the publishing companies. Take for example, Mr. Kevin O’Learly. If you’ve ever watched the show Shark Tank, you
know that Kevin is a straight shooter that doesn’t care about an entrepreneur’s background–he wants to know if investing in their company will make him money. Fun fact, Kevin also spent years working with Houghton Mifflin, one of the biggest publishers in the educational/children’s literature industry. This is the face of the publishing companies! They aren’t people with a passion for education. They are people with a passion for making money. You really can’t fault the publishers themselves. I think the issue is that this is how the system is set up. Books shouldn’t be about making money! But to some, they are…
After digesting all of this, I was left wondering, what can I do?? I tried to go beyond the fact that this is wrong, and think about ways to solve the problem. How can you get a publishing company to change their ways? Easy. You don’t. After a discussion with a friend, I wanted to share something they told me.
“The publishing companies aren’t going to change. They respond to change.”
This is plain, simple, and true. If we want the market to change, we need to change the way we buy things. We need to educate other people about the diverse books that ARE available. As a teacher, I can make sure my library is stocked with the current diverse books, in hopes that they inspire others to read (and perhaps) purchase. I can have conversations about the lack of book diversity, because I know that prior to this week, it wasn’t something I ever thought about. But now that I know it’s an issue, I feel compelled to explore more diverse books. I feel like many people would react the same. The lack diversity in books isn’t widely talked about, but I think the more it’s talked about, the less of an issue it will become. My takeaway from this week: I surely won’t be able to singlehandedly overtake Mr. O’leary and his fellow sharks, but I can educate and enrich the lives around me by having a diverse book selection at my disposal. I think the most important thing is to do this not just tomorrow, while I’m still fired up and the idea is fresh, but to make it a habit to have a diverse library and recommendation list to offer my students.