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.

TV Review: FRESH OFF THE BOAT

FOTB

Yesterday the new ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat premiered (it should be noted that I only watched the pilot, but two episodes did air). The show is about a young boy whose family moves from Washington DC to Orlando so that his dad can open up a new restaurant. The series is based off of Eddie Huang’s memoir Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir, but its real headline is that it is something like the second primetime television show to be about Asian-Americans.

The show follows Eddie as he deals with his family’s move from the far more diverse Washington DC to the monoculturally white Orlando. It is a comedy partly about the immigrant experience, partly about family, and partly about growing up. Its jokes aren’t the most brilliant, some of them fall flat, but the show absolutely thrives off of its core cast and their experiences. It’s pretty simple, but highlights how much we miss out on when we ignore a diversity of voices in our pop culture and media.

Eddie is an Asian-American who is in love with hip-hop culture–he says it’s always been the anthem of the outsider–and the show makes great use of 90s hip-hop legends like Notorious B.I.G. and Nas. His dad, Louis, is in love with America and the opportunity it can provide for his family–this is shown by his restaurant’s wild west theme. His mother, Jessica, tries to fit in with a rollerblading group of young blondes in the neighborhood, much to her chagrin. His siblings Emery and Evan adjust quite well to their new neighborhood, though one eats string cheese and discovers he’s lactose intolerant.

The immigrant experience and the cross-cultural America we our currently experiencing (though it has always been a big mix of people) is pertinent and fascinating. The show does a good job of representing the mix of people and varying experiences. Eddie and a group of white boys bond over Biggie, Louis hires a white guy (played by Paul Scheer!) to attract customers to his restaurant, the restaurant’s cook is a tattooed Latino, and Louis’ biggest problem at school ends up being the only other minority–who picks on him in order to elevate himself from his perceived place at the bottom. Fresh Off the Boat acknowledges the multicultural world, using it to its advantage  to make a pilot episode that is exciting, charming, and very promising.

*Insert Quasi-Famous Celeb Name Here* is Dead and Other Lies We Believe

I am obsessed with the idea that our lives are shaped by the things people tell us, though these things – masquerading as facts – are likely something they heard from somebody else, who heard it from somebody else, who read it once in an email or in the comment boards, etc… There are wide misconceptions that get spread without nobody double checking to see if they are true, because it is simpler and natural to just accept this vague statement as a truth and spread it as so. These ideas are often small and casual, meant to push conversation forward or provide some sort of explanation to something nobody really knows.

I remember rumors being spread in the midst of the Napoleon Dynamite age, that lead actor Jon Heder had died. I can’t remember the way he was rumored to have died, but NAPOLEON DYNAMITE HIMSELF was dead! This was also said to be true of the guy who played Kel in Nickolodeon’s Keenan and Kel. There was also a rumor that Steve Burns, host of Blue’s Clues, was a drug addict and left the show to go to rehab or died of an overdose.

Of course none of these rumors were true, but at various points in time I at least sort of believed them, and knew plenty of people who did. When presented as the facts, there was no reason to not believe them, but after about 10 seconds of research one obviously finds out they are not true. If these are perpetuated as truths, how much more so will deeper and more complex false ideas also be believed?

Single narratives are easily believed and are easily spread.

When we hear a story about something, it shapes our opinion, how we view the facts. Reading an article or, let’s be honest, a headline in your Facebook/Twitter/whatever feed makes you believe that something is true without ever considering any counterpoints or evidence. The idea comes in and we unconsciously allow it to shape our viewpoint – we are even prone to argue against others on that point even though we’ve only read the headline!

It is a natural thing to accept an idea as truth, unless one has already accepted a counter viewpoint to be truth, this is where cognitive dissonance comes in.

This is one of the reasons why I think a call for diversity in learning and entertainment is necessary. We must diversify the voices that we hear, refusing to accept these single narratives.

Today it is easy to shape the types of people we want to hear. The pages we like on Facebook, the people we follow on Twitter, the channels we turn on, etc… We have the ability to choose who we want to  hear (something that I, frankly, enjoy). With this ability to choose who we hear, we can also choose who we filter out, making us each susceptible to only allowing in voices that reaffirm our opinions, inform our biases, and tell of our experience. It’s easier to do so.

Shaping a feed to match your own interests and opinions is fine, that is what it is made for. But in order to avoid ignorance, to gain a wider perspective on the world’s affairs we should aim for diversity; for a bit of cognitive dissonance. We should hear opinions from those further left or right from where we are politically. We should listen to the experiences of those of different religious ideologies. We should intentionally seek out those of different ethnic or socioeconomic backgrounds to hear their perspectives on every day life. This not only refers to our news feeds, but those whose writing we read, movies we watch, radio stations we listen to, food we eat, etc…

We have an inclination to accept whatever we hear, sometimes we intentionally keep this to those within our own worldview, sometimes we accidentally do, but it’s important to reach out beyond, accept the contradictory, do the research, and listen to the outsider.