The Power of Children’s Literature and its Omissions

While I (Yiola) knew there was a lack of representation of  “people of colour” in children’s literature, I was surprised to read the statistics. The chart below shows the number of books published last year and the number written ‘by’ and ‘about’ the different groups defined as ‘people of colour’.


Year

Total Number
of Books
Published (Est.)

Number of Books
Received
at CCBC


African / 
African Americans


American Indians

Asian Pacifics/
Asian Pacific Americans



Latinos

 

 

 

By

About

By

About

By

About

By

About

2013

5,000

3,200

67

93

18

34

90

69

48

57

Two fantastic articles in the New York Times last week prompted me to write this blog:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/16/opinion/sunday/the-apartheid-of-childrens-literature.html?ref=contributors&_r=0

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/16/opinion/sunday/where-are-the-people-of-color-in-childrens-books.html?ref=contributors&_r=0

The articles share the stark realities and implications of the statistics represented above from the experiences of African American men, writers themselves. Reading the articles echo and confirm what I believe to be the realities and consequences of our publishing marketplace.  And yet, what to do about it?

The other day I was speaking to a high school educator (a behavior specialist, child and youth worker) who shared stories with me about boys in her school who are misbehaving, who are rude and disrespectful.  I shared with her the ideas that their behaviours must stem from something much bigger than an attitude problem… that they may feel oppressed, misrepresented or not represented at all by the school and broader society.  I do not think she was buying my argument.

My role as a teacher educator is to inform future teachers of the realities of teaching, learning and schooling.  Part of that role includes understanding how systems work for and against particular groups and individual students. One concrete area for exploring such systems is children’s literature.

Christoper Myers, author of “The apartheid of children’s literature”, describes books as maps to identity and ways of being:

[Children] see books less as mirrors and more as maps. They are indeed searching for their place in the world, but they are also deciding where they want to go. They create, through the stories they’re given, an atlas of their world, of their relationships to others, of their possible destinations.

The consequences of excluding certain groups:

what it means is that when kids today face the realities of our world, our global economies, our integrations and overlappings, they all do so without a proper map. They are navigating the streets and avenues of their lives with an inadequate, outdated chart, and we wonder why they feel lost.

Alternatively, Walter Dean Myers, author of the second article, explains what happened to him when he connected to a text: 

Then I read a story by James Baldwin: “Sonny’s Blues.” I didn’t love the story, but I was lifted by it, for it took place in Harlem, and it was a story concerned with black people like those I knew. By humanizing the people who were like me, Baldwin’s story also humanized me. The story gave me a permission that I didn’t know I needed, the permission to write about my own landscape, my own map.

And so, how do we as teacher educators empower teachers so they empower students to realize the flawed systems we live in but and to move beyond them to ensure each child can navigate and negotiate their personalized, broad, rich landscape of possibilities?  I suggest: we ourselves develop a critical stance and what Noddings calls a culture of care; we are explicit about the realities of the systems we currently work in; and we work hard to search out texts and materials that share rich stories of all of our students and beyond.  More so, I suggest we move to change the marketplace by publishing texts that begin to close the gaps in representation in children’s literature.

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One thought on “The Power of Children’s Literature and its Omissions

  1. Informative ! a very informative article. the writer has sweeped all the main facets. I am indeed impressed by the information spread throughout this blog.
    Bravo! Keep up the good work.

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