For decades, children’s books in school libraries and classrooms have overwhelmingly featured white faces. And as the U.S. school-age population grows more diverse, students of color are less likely than white students to see books with characters that look like them or share their cultural background.
Some educators and children’s book authors are trying to change that.
Nonprofits like We Need Diverse Books advocate for children’s literature that better reflects the experiences of all young readers. In online communities, such as those formed around Twitter hashtags #DisruptTexts and #DiversityJedi, teachers, authors, and critics discuss which books are given to students in classrooms and what messages they convey. Even DonorsChoose.org, the school crowdfunding platform, recently pledged to match donations to teacher requests for diverse learning materials.
The ripples of this ongoing conversation have reached a lot of classrooms, said Jess Lifshitz, a 5th grade teacher at Meadowbrook Elementary School in Northbrook, Ill.
“More teachers now know it’s the right thing to have books that represent a wide variety of people,” said Lifshitz. But, she added, “I think people do that, and they kind of want to check it off the checklist.”
Supporters of diverse books say that it’s important for children of color to see their own identities and experiences reflected in literature. And studies have shown that black children who receive messages emphasizing cultural pride—though not necessarily through books—have higher self-esteem, better social-emotional functioning, and increased classroom engagement.
But developing a truly inclusive classroom library goes beyond bringing in diverse books. “Just having them on the shelf does not ... do that teaching or unlearning of the stereotypes that we are barragged with all the time,” said Laura Jiménez, a lecturer in Boston University’s education school.
Following the civil rights and women’s rights movements, a call for multicultural education in the 1970s and ‘80s drove schools to incorporate texts that would challenge stereotypes about people of color and shed light on the historical injustices perpetrated against those groups, said Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, an associate professor in the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.
Those texts were meant to repair distorted narratives, said Thomas, but they can be painful for children of color to read because they often deal with traumatic events. Thomas has seen these patterns persist in the literature that students have access to today—many of the books about black people cover slavery or the civil rights movement.
“The white child gets all kinds of mirrors of the self in literature,” said Thomas. “Endless, countless adventures. The full range of history—the good, bad, and the ugly. Whereas other children only get a very narrow slice of that history.”
Now, some educators are examining the composition of their classroom libraries as a whole and the stories that these books tell. And they’re asking their students to examine the stereotypes that they hold as readers.
Auditing the Classroom
The Cooperative Children’s Book Center, a library at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education, has tracked diversity in children’s books since the 1980s. Last year, 11 percent of children’s books published in the United States featured main characters who were African or African-American, about 9 percent were about Asian-Americans or Pacific Islanders, about 7 percent featured Latino main characters, and only 1 percent were about native peoples. That’s in contrast to the demographics of public schools today, where there are now more students of color than white students.
Even when teachers bring diverse books into their lessons, the broader context of a classroom or school library might still disproportionately favor white characters.
Noelle Mapes, a 2nd grade teacher at PS 142 in New York City, has found that to be true in her own classroom.
Three years ago, when she was teaching 3rd grade at a different school, she started conducting an annual diversity audit of her classroom library with her students. First, they looked at national trends in the racial diversity of children’s books, using the cooperative center’s data. Then, the elementary schoolers did their own tally in the classroom, recording the race of the protagonist of each book.
Mapes now does this activity every April, after introducing her students to the idea that books can be both “windows,” exposing readers to new worlds and perspectives, and “mirrors,” reflecting readers’ own experiences—a framework developed by author and education researcher Rudine Sims Bishop, a professor emerita of education at Ohio State University.
Every year, the highest percentage of books feature white protagonists. And every year, students are surprised—and disappointed.
In Mapes’ classroom, the overrepresentation of white characters isn’t for lack of trying to improve. The first year Mapes did the audit in her old school, students started bringing in books with protagonists of color to donate. As a result of her project, the PTA allocated funds for teachers to buy more titles. She also uses school-provided funds for her classroom to buy diverse books every year.
Over time, the percentage of diverse books in her old classroom increased, Mapes said. But when she left the school, books with white main characters still outnumbered books featuring characters of color in her classroom library. “Each year, as that initiative grows, as awareness grows around what kinds of books we want to buy and have donated, the margins should decrease,” she said.
In examining her classroom library, Mapes said, she’s also noticed some of the narratives that her collection shapes. In years when she has had the time, she’s gone through some of the categories of books with her students after the audit. When they looked at the books about Native Americans one year, she noticed a theme: All were set in the past.
That trend holds true across children’s books about native people, conveying the myth that they don’t exist anymore, said Debbie Reese, the founder of the American Indians in Children’s Literature blog.
“The idea that we can have present-day culture, modern-day society as part of our lives and still have our traditional religion and culture intact—it’s a no-brainer to me as a native person, but society has a hard time understanding that,” said Reese, who is tribally enrolled at Nambé Pueblo. Characters also often aren’t named by their tribal affiliation, Reese said, which obscures the fact that there are more than 500 different federally recognized native nations, all with unique languages and cultures.
Some educators are asking students to interrogate these “single story” narratives that they may carry.
Every spring, Lifshitz, the Illinois teacher, does an activity around bias in books. She covers the titles on a handful of picture books in her classroom and poses some statements describing what the books are about—sentences like: “This is a book dealing with sadness and struggle and loss,” or “This is a book about the love and joy that exists between family members.”
Lifhsitz’s students, who are majority white, are asked to match up each book with each statement, relying on cover art alone. Usually, the children guess that the covers featuring black families are about struggle, pain, or trauma—even when they aren’t.
Once the titles and summaries of the books are revealed, the students can usually explain what has happened in the exercise. “They’re willing to say, ‘Oh you know what, I was totally using skin color to make an assumption, and that’s what led me to the wrong answer,’” she said.
Teaching students to think critically about the kinds of stories books are telling is just as important as having a diverse array of literature in the classroom, said Lifshitz.
No matter how much she works to confront stereotypes in her classroom, students are still going to confront them out in the world, she said. “If I don’t give them tools to recognize that, having the books in my classroom isn’t really doing much to change how they’re reading outside of the classroom.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2019 edition of Education Week as Teachers Push for More Diverse Books, Fewer Stereotypes