I recently read an article in my Children’s Literature class by Walter Dean Myers, author of Monster among other young adult novels. The article, Where Are The People Of Color In Children’s Books?, was published in The New York Times on March 15, 2014. Simply put, the lengthy piece was about Myers’ experience with literature as a child, and how he felt he could not connect with the characters in books due to the fact that they all seemed to be white. As a young black male, Myers lost his interest in reading because he could not find any novels to which he could relate. He could not find his story. His mirror was missing, leaving him feeling frustrated and alone.
As a young white female, I never experienced this problem growing up. I was always able to find books with characters that I could easily relate to, and in fact, these “mirror” books were my favorites. I never really liked books that I couldn’t relate to in some way. If the main character in a book was different from me in gender and/or ethnicity, I usually didn’t finish it. Looking back, I see that I was limiting myself in my book selection, but by how much? How many books out there are about people different from myself, non-white middle-class citizens?
The answer: not many.
In 1969, when Myers began writing young adult literature, most all books were about white people. Black, Latino, Asian, and others were underrepresented, if represented at all. In addition, people from a lower socioeconomic background were rarely written about. This left most children from non-white, middle and upper-class backgrounds out of luck. “Small wonder,” they didn’t like to read, Myers stated. As far as numbers go, Myers informed his readers that currently, “about 40 percent of public school students nationwide are black and Latino,” yet the amount of books about black and Latino children is still extremely slim. According to The Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC), out of about 5,000 books published for children and young adults in 2014, only 180 of them were about African-Americans, 38 about American Indians, 112 about Asian Pacifics, and 66 about Latinos (http://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/pcstats.asp). While I was not surprised that there were more books published about white people than others, I was astonished that the number was as low as it is. This ignorance may have something to do with the fact that I can always find a book that I can relate to, but I also think that I simply never thought about diversity in literature until my Children’s Literature course at Carolina.
I am left to wonder why the amount of books available about white individuals is so much greater than books about non-white individuals. Are white authors afraid to write about other races, in fear of being inaccurate? Are non-white authors few and far between? Are only white authors being published? Are there only a few non-white authors writing novels for children and young adults?
All I know is that I am lucky. As a white female, I was always able to find a book, generally by a white female author, that I could relate to growing up. Heck, I’m still able to do this pretty darn easily. The lack of books about non-white individuals leads me to believe that there is something wrong in the writing world. I don’t know just what that is, but I hope as the years go on all kids are able to find books that they can relate to, and maybe this will encourage them to read more, or at least not feel as alone as Myers did growing up.