Looking in the Mirror: Children Need More Diverse Books

by Melissa Bradford

Vampires don’t have reflections. When these “monsters” look into a mirror, they see no image of themselves staring back at them. I recently read an analogy by Pulitzer Prize–winning author Junot Diaz who compared a vampire’s lack of reflection to how some people cannot see themselves reflected in the books they read.

Those people include the young children—children who are African American, Asian, Latino, and Native American—who visit a library looking for books with characters like them on the cover only to find shelves and shelves of white protagonists.

When these children don’t see themselves represented in media, they begin to ask themselves the same questions Diaz asked himself growing up: Is there something wrong with me? Does society think that people like me don’t exist? They begin to think that since they have no reflection, they must be monsters too.

This of course is not true, and the blame for lack of diverse publications falls onto the publishing industry. According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, out of 3,200 children books published in 2013, only 93 were about African Americans, and the numbers are even lower for Asian, Latino, and Native American children’s books. The number of children’s books published about non-white characters adds up to less than 10% of the total, yet the U.S. Census reports that minorities make up almost 40% of the U.S. population and that figure is only expected in increase over the next few decades.

One of the reasons big name publishers aren’t producing more culturally diverse books is because they believe that those books won’t sell as well or that there isn’t a market for them. However a recent social media campaign has set out to prove them wrong. After scrolling through the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag on Twitter for the first time, I saw people from all different races sharing their personal experiences and explaining why their cultures deserve to be published too.

This is why, when I first started interning for Truman State University Press, I was thrilled to find out about their Notable Missourians children’s book series. The series focuses on the stories of significant people who have contributed to Missouri’s history, including former slave Sam Nightingale and Native American leader Great Walker. Whereas some history books only highlight the triumphs of white people, this series makes a point of featuring people not found in the typical textbook, showing young Missouri students that everybody—whatever their skin color, religion, or ethnic background—is part of our state’s history.

In an industry where it’s easier to find more children’s books featuring talking animals than multicultural protagonists, every book counts. Each diverse book published has the chance to be a young child’s mirror. Children will pull the book off of the library shelf, open the pages, and see themselves reflected back at them, reassuring them that they are not the monster here—they never were. They just needed the right book to show them.

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