Where Are the Black People in Children's Books?

Award-winning authors Christopher and Walter Dean Myers highlight the importance of providing Black children with more diverse books that reflect their own experiences.

Posted: 03/17/2014 04:00 PM EDT

Many debates have been raised about the lack of diversity in film and television, but what about children’s books?

According to a study, of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, only 93 were about Black people. The numbers for Asian-Americans (69), Latinos (57) and American-Indians (34) were even lower. To put these numbers in perspective, about 40 percent of public school students nationwide are Black and Latino.

African-American authors Christopher and Walter Dean Myers recently explored why this huge disparity of representation mattered not only for Black people, but for society as a whole in a set of reflective op-ed articles for the The New York Times.  

“Books transmit values,” Walter wrote. “They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?”

“Where are the future white personnel managers going to get their ideas of people of color? Where are the future white loan officers and future white politicians going to get their knowledge of people of color? Where are Black children going to get a sense of who they are and what they can be?”

A father-son writing duo, both Walter and Christopher were raised in Harlem, a multicultural New York City neighborhood that has served as the setting for many of their books. Throughout their careers, the authors have centered many of their award-winning books on children and young adults of color, particularly on characters facing issues relevant to inner-city youth.  

"Thousands of young people have come to me saying that they love my books for some reason or the other, but I strongly suspect that what they have found in my pages is the same thing I found in [James Baldwin’s] Sonny’s Blues, Walter wrote.

"They have been struck by the recognition of themselves in the story, a validation of their existence as human beings, an acknowledgment of their value by someone who understands who they are. It is the shock of recognition at its highest level."

Rounding up the dismal numbers is easy, but pinpointing someone to blame for this misrepresentation in children’s books? That proves a much more difficult task.

"I would like to have a proper enemy in this story...But, unfortunately, this story is more truth than fiction, and the villain here is elusive,” Christopher wrote in "The Apartheid of Children’s Literature."

The author claims that no particular publishers or editors feel they are to blame, but rather an intangible scapegoat otherwise known as "The Market."

As Christopher explained: "The Market, I am told, just doesn’t demand this kind of book, doesn’t want book covers to look this or that way, and so the representative from (insert major book-selling company here) has asked that we have only text on the book cover because white kids won’t buy a book with a Black kid on the cover — or so The Market says, despite millions of music albums that are sold in just that way.”

So, who will save this genre from the one-dimensional clutches of The Market?

Christopher encouraged publishers, librarians, teachers and parents to provide Black children with more books starring characters who looked like them. Walter simply concluded that "there is work to be done."

"Book publishing is little better [than the film industry]," wrote Walter. "Black history is usually depicted as folklore about slavery, and then a fast-forward to the civil rights movement. Then I’m told that Black children, and boys in particular, don’t read.

"Small wonder."

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(Photo: Blend Images - JGI/Jamie Grill/GettyImages)

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