POC-Centric Narratives

“So now to do my part — because I can draw a map as well as anybody. I’m talking with a girl. She’s at that age where the edges of the woman she will become are just starting to press against her baby-round face, and I will make a fantastic world, a cartography of all the places a girl like her can go, and put it in a book. The rest of the work lies in the imagination of everyone else along the way, the publishers, librarians, teachers, parents, and all of us, to put that book in her hands.”

-Christopher Myers

A fantastic place to begin an understanding of the lack of diverse books written by and about people of color and the enormous importance of creating narratives for children of color is the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC). The CCBC is responsible for collecting years worth of data that allow us an unparalleled window into the changes and trends in children’s literature, starting in 1985.

“In 1985 the Cooperative Children’s Book Center began to document the numbers of books we received each year that were written and/or illustrated by African Americans. Then-CCBC Director Ginny Moore Kruse was serving as a member of the Coretta Scott King Award Committee that year, and we were appalled to learn that, of the approximately 2,500 trade books that were published in 1985, only 18 were created by African Americans, and thus eligible for the Coretta Scott King Award.” 

Their original research and findings were further expanded on in 1994, when the CCBC

“Began also keeping track of the numbers of books by Asian/Pacific and Asian/Pacific American, First/Native Nation and Latino book creators as well. We also began documenting not only the number of books created by people of color and First/Native Nations authors and illustrators, but the number of books about people of color and First/Native Nations, including the many titles that have been created by white authors and/or illustrators.”

How has the publishing industry changed in the years since the CCBC began gathering data, if at all? KT Horning provides a thoughtful explanation on the CCBC blog:

“Since 1985, the CCBC has been keeping statistics on the number of children’s books by and about African Americans. For the first two years, the numbers were dismal (just 18 books out of 2,500 published in 1985 and again in 1986).  USA Today did a story about it that included one of their handy visuals to illustrate the problem.”

usa today stats

Horning continues, revealing:

“For the next few years we began to see an increase that was enough to make us hopeful. But that didn’t last. By the mid-1990s the numbers began to plateau and they have stagnated ever since. But a couple of years ago we began to notice a dramatic increase in the number of books about African-Americans — it nearly doubled from 2013 to 2014 (from 93 to 180), and then jumped to 265 in 2015. In 2016 we saw a small bump to 278. We’re not sure what caused this. Was it the Obama effect? (If an African American can be President, why not a book character?) Was it the call for more Black books in the New York Times editorials by Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers early in 2014? Was it the impact of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement? A combination of all three? Regardless of the cause, many saw this as a reason for celebration. But the increase in the number of books about African Americans doesn’t tell the whole story. It needs to be looked at next to the number of these same books that are actually by African Americans.”

This graph helps to illuminate what is happening:

2016 AF-Am stat graph

Horning remarks that “We can see that there are a whole lot of books being written about African Americans these days by people who are not African American. Does it matter? It certainly can. Especially when you care about authenticity.”
“And, more significantly, this means we are not seeing African-American authors and artists being given the same opportunities to tell their own stories. In fact, last year just 71 of the 278 (25.5%) books about African-Americans were actually written and/or illustrated by African Americans.  The graph above shows this gap quite dramatically.”
Horning’s nuanced take on the steps needed to bridge that “gap between the books about and the books by African Americans” includes her explanation:
We don’t just need more African American authors and artists being signed and nurtured by publishers, we also need white authors and artists to take a step back to make room for people to tell their own stories. Let’s hope that by 2020 this graph tells a different story.
The 2016 School Library Journal piece that Horning references, “When We Was Fierce” Pulled as Demand Grows for More #OwnVoices Stories” also highlights the trouble with children’s books that are not “books about diverse characters, written by those in the same diverse group”. Those books, considered #ownvoices submissions, take on the challenge of closing the gap in children’s literature.
The conversation around diverse literature in 2016 consisted of a variety of  “concerns around representation of characters in stories” that led to “Scholastic’s decision to pull A Birthday Cake for George Washington to discussions around the use of the word “tribe” alongside images of children in natural surroundings with feathers in their hair, in Lane Smith’s There Is a Tribe of Kids.”
While mainstream reviews from sources such as Kirkus called When We Was Fierce 
“...a compassionate, forceful look at the heartbreak and choices these black boys and men face”, educators and librarians such as Horning and Jennifer BakerMinorities in Publishing podcast creator and member of We Need Diverse Books pointed out that the book’s content was
“Highly problematic from the inaccuracies to this very arm’s length approach, [and] the stereotyping of black characters specifically…the made up dialect the author used was so egregious, it is horrible.”
Looking towards the future of books for and by people of color, the words of Walter Dean Myers ring ever more true, as diverse writers and illustrators labor to
“Make [children of color] feel as if they are part of America’s dream, that all the rhetoric is meant for them, and that they are wanted in this country” and give them that moment where they are “struck by the recognition of themselves in the story” that “validation of their existence as human beings” and “an acknowledgment of their value by someone who understands who they are”
Speaking of James Baldwin’s novel Sonny’s Blues, Myers says “the story gave me a permission that I didn’t know I needed, the permission to write about my own landscape, my own map”, something that every child deserves.

Online Resources:

  • CCBC
  • Multicultural Children’s Book Day-Children’s reading and play advocates Valarie Budayr from Jump Into a Book and Mia Wenjen from PragmaticMom have teamed up to create an ambitious — and much needed —  national event.  On January 27th five years ago, 2014 Jump into a Book and PragmaticMom presented their very first Multicultural Children’s Book Day as a way of celebrating diversity in children’s books. The results and support overwhelming as authors, publishers, parents, teachers, bloggers, and librarians joined forces to offer up an online event designed to shine the spotlight on diversity in children’s literature.
  • Lee & Low– Lee & Low Books is the largest multicultural children’s book publisher in the country. We are also one of the few minority-owned publishing companies in the United States, as well as a throwback to what many publishers used to be: independent, generational businesses in which the people running the company have a personal stake in its success.
  • Colours of Us