On Children’s Books

last stop on market

When preparing for my son’s arrival, I started diving into the world of kid’s books. Books are obviously an entry point into culture, probably the most important one as kids start to identify meaning in pictures, words–both spoken and read, and prepare for their entire educational life. Mastering the skills and disciplines of reading seem even more important today, where we are more and more easily distracted and technology is literally reshaping our brains.

I started reading to my son while he was in the womb, they say it’s good for them to hear your voice, so he listened as I read the latest issues of The Atlantic I received, Nathan Hill’s The Nix, and Rob Bell’s What is the Bible? all of which I was reading throughout pregnancy.
When he was born, I continued to read to him and am trying to make it into a daily habit, so he recognizes that this is something we do and something we do together (at this point he mostly wants to put them in his mouth and cries until I let him do it).
There is an overabundance of kid’s books and materials out there, ones that are meant to cover every cognitive possibility, teaching our kids a plethora of necessary skills. But I wanted to make sure I emphasized a diverse set of voices and materials in the books I gave to my son. It’s easy, particularly as a white person, to participate in a culture where white males are considered the norm and when other people are shown, they are represented to be something different or meant solely for people of that background. I think it’s important to rub against that, featuring mostly people who do not look like my son as he develops his media diet. Books are the first step.
Now, having tried it, let me tell you how hard that is, part of the reason why it needs to be intentionally resisted against. It’s hard because to start you probably have a few booksyou were nostalgic for. For me that was The Giving Tree, Where the Wild Things Are, etc… You still want to make sure your kid reads the ones you think are classics. You’ll also receive plenty of books as gifts; most of the time these people will get whatever they think is cute or what they were influenced by, etc… Even if you make a list of books you want people to buy, they’re still going to buy whatever they want to buy. This is hard because you don’t want to be that freaked out parent who has such specific standards for his kid that everyone rolls their eyes when you turn your back, but at the same time you do want to set this standard.
So let me tell you, even though I intended for my son’s books to represent perspectives different than his, half of them probably do not. Imagine if I hadn’t been trying? How many of them would reflect a different perspective? This is why we have to be intentional about this, because it won’t happen on its own.
The books we show our kids help to develop a worldview. At an early age they begin to develop a sense of objects and ideas, as they grow older they experience emotions and grapple with the world through the power of stories. Placing them in different people’s stories helps them to relate and understand the vast world and hopefully helps to develop empathy. When we understand that our life and experiences are just one of a very small set we begin to move forward, respecting experiences of others and not making bad assumptions that lead us to making hurtful decisions. It gives us a bigger pool of understanding to draw from as we try to make it through life. It’s essential to hear the stories of others.
That being said, let’s look at the statistics of the books we have for our son, to see how we did when we intentionally tried to diversify his books. I will not be including any books we have in the Swedish language because we also want to make sure our children speak Swedish and that took precedent over any featured characters in the books.
The Stats
38% feature non-human/animal characters
8% feature a non specified ethnicity
So 46% of the books don’t feature any sort of human with a background that can be identified. This isn’t terrible, but there are studies that suggest when characters are non-human, children don’t really take in the lessons of the book. Read it here if you’re interested.
So of the books that do feature a human with a recognizable ethnic background, this is what I found:
81% feature a male lead, 29% feature a female lead.
63% feature a white lead, 42% feature a person of color (some books were counted twice because they feature two characters that could be considered leads).
Looking at the authors (all books included here)
68% of authors were male, 32% of authors were female
88% of authors were white, 8% were a person of color (some authors could not be identified).
Here is a link to the spreadsheet I created if you wanna see the full stats.
Looking at these stats, you can see we didn’t really come close to meeting any sort of 50/50 ratio with either the featured characters or the authors. It’s not great and we’ve got some work to do.
If you want to buy us some books with female leads or diverse characters you are certainly more than welcome to (*wink wink*).
Feel free to comment with any of your efforts to include diversity in your children’s lives or your favorite books that we should check out.
Also keep comments civil.

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