Growing up, my face was always buried in a book. I carried a tote bag to and from the library once a week, filled it until I couldn’t pick it up and read for hours.
And in every book I read, I found characters who looked just like me. Little girls with white skin overcoming the obstacles in their way. Literature taught me that I could be anything I wanted to be and transported me to different worlds, but I was still a part of those worlds.
I could fly, slay dragons, rule the world. For years those messages that uplifted me and fueled my love of writing were echoed in the writing I did myself.
But where is the representation for other underrepresented groups? For years, modern and classic literature has ignored people of color.
One of the biggest offenders? Children’s literature.
Representation matters because there isn’t just one story to be told. If we show young children there is only one type of hero or heroine in a book – often a white one – where does that leave the children who never see their voices and faces represented?
Children of color are invisible in traditional storytelling.
The website We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) collected data concerning representation in children’s literature. According to WNDB, in 2013, 1,509 children’s books were published – 78.3 percent of children’s books, or 1,183, featured human characters and of those books only 124 featured people of color.
That’s a total of 10.37 percent.
Now, you might be thinking: “That must be an improvement from earlier in literature!”
Not so much.
According to WNDB, a study was conducted in 1965 that found, “Of 5,206 children’s trade books published by 63 publishers during a three-year period, only 349 books, about 6.7 percent, had one or more African American characters in them.”
With such a huge focus on literacy and reading from a young age, why is there such minimal representation of entire populations?
Diverse books are important for children because without them, children are reduced to reading a single narrative, a single story. A story that may not ever motivate or inspire them because they simply do not see themselves represented.
For a novel that perfectly exemplifies the importance of a robust and diverse narrative, look to Angie Thomas’ “The Hate U Give,” a book that chronicles the Black Lives Matter movement from the perspective of a 15-year-old African-American girl named Starr.
That novel entered The New York Times young adult best seller list at number one. A clear sign that people everywhere wanted to read a novel that tells a different story.
Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said, “The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”
[Editor’s Note: Angie Thomas will be at FSU on April 2.]