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Trends and Patterns in Culturally Diverse Books: Part 1

in: Children's books

Asian boy reading

In our post What does ‘cultural diversity’ mean when it comes to children’s books? we explored various definitions of cultural diversity. Here we thought we would take a look at the kinds of books we might classify as culturally diverse and any generic trends and patterns that emerge.

We have settled on four broad headings for our findings, and have attempted to look at the various pros and cons of some of the different approaches to cultural diversity taken by authors and illustrators writing today.

Let us know your thoughts!

Issues-driven books exploring racism and prejudice

Books that deal with racism head-on can be incredibly helpful for children who are affected by prejudice, allowing readers to understand that they are not alone and that there are people who can help. It is also to be hoped that books of this genre allow readers who are – perhaps inadvertently – acting in a racist manner towards other children to understand the impulses behind, and consequences of, their actions.

The pros of such books far outweigh the cons, but these books are not without their dangers. One concern is that issues-heavy books may unwittingly position protagonists from minority backgrounds as victims – their race marking them out as ‘different’ from the rest and a ‘problem’ to be overcome.

They are also, as you would expect, not the kinds of books you might first reach for if you are looking for a fun and entertaining read – a choice that children of majority backgrounds always get to make.

The wonderful Walter Dean Myers, who sadly passed away last year, had this to say on the subject:

‘Joe Morton, the actor who starred in “The Brother From Another Planet,” has said that all but a few motion pictures being made about blacks are about blacks as victims. In them, we are always struggling to overcome either slavery or racism. Book publishing is little better. 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.’

While his focus here is on American publishing, his words hit home in the UK too. The weight of historical legacy is often hard to bear for today’s children who wish for nothing more than a chance to play computer games and message their friends on Snapchat.

Non-fiction and non-fiction inspired

The importance of introducing young readers to positive cultural role models at an early age has long been recognised, yet the opportunities for non-Caucasian children to recognise themselves in the books they read are few and far between.

This is why a significant proportion of culturally diverse books for children come in the form of biographies, autobiographies and fictionalised accounts of the lives of historical figures such as pioneering black leaders, scientists and thinkers and their (often under-recognised) achievements.

A sub-set of this genre imagines a fictional scenario arising from a real life historical event. An example might be a young girl’s imagined experience of slavery in a historically accurate time and place, or events in the life of a fictional African American family living in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Again, there are more pros to these types of books than cons, since any opportunity to learn more about those unsung heroes who have made our countries what they are today should not be missed.

However, the ‘problem’, if it is to be called a problem, is in the proportion of books of this genre – vastly more, per book published, than in mainstream publishing. Where children of majority cultures can choose any number of fictional books to balance out their non-fiction texts, children of minority backgrounds lack anywhere near the breadth of choice in their fictional reading material.

As with the books above, minority protagonists who struggle against harrowing circumstances to achieve extraordinary outcomes can be incredibly inspiring for young readers. However, race here, as above, is still a category of difference and remains in the foreground.

To read Part II of this blog post, please click here.

Image by Susana Fernandez shared under Creative Commons License via Flickr

What does ‘cultural diversity’ mean when it comes to children’s books?

in: Children's books

globe, cultural diversity, world cultures, multicultural

Here at Lantana our mission is to champion cultural diversity in children’s publishing.

So what exactly do we mean by ‘cultural diversity’? And what exactly is a ‘culturally diverse’ children’s book? Here are a few definitions:

 

Books that represent diverse cultural experiences

This is a broad category that includes any book concerned with anything other than the majority experience.

A majority culture is one whose population demographic is larger than other ethnic groups. An example would be the white population in Britain or the Chinese population in Singapore. Alternatively, a majority experience could be that of a culture whose population is not larger than other ethnic groups but whose historical, political or financial influence is – also known as a dominant culture. An example would be the white population in South Africa.

Books that are concerned with minority rather than majority experiences can be divided into two categories:

Books that represent diverse cultural experiences within a majority culture

Books such as these might focus on the experiences of one culture living within another, for instance, a Hindu family living in the UK. They might also explore the experiences of characters from many different ethnic backgrounds living together in the same area. You might term these books ‘multicultural’.

Books that represent diverse cultural experiences might focus on the experiences of immigrants or refugees, or first, second or third generation migrants living in diasporic communities – anyone whose cultural experiences are unlike those of the majority or dominant population.

Books that represent cultures and countries other than those of the books’ readers

Books such as these whisk you away to foreign places. To give you an example, a book about a Chinese community in London celebrating Chinese New Year would fit into the category above, but a book about a Chinese community celebrating Chinese New Year in China would fit into this category. This latter book represents the experiences of a majority culture, but not one we hear a lot about in mainstream British publishing.

Unless a further definition is given, books that represent diverse cultural experiences in either of the above categories do not necessarily have to be written or illustrated by an author or artist hailing from the cultures or countries portrayed.

Books that are written and illustrated by authors and artists of diverse cultural backgrounds

This narrows the field to focus solely on books produced by authors and illustrators whose ethnicity is not that of the majority population in the country in which they live or are published. This would include an author born in the UK to Pakistani parents or a Pakistani author whose books are sold in the UK, but it would not include a white British author writing about the experiences of a Pakistani character.

This category can also be subdivided into further additional categories:

Books that are produced by authors and illustrators of minority backgrounds about minority experiences

An example would be a Caribbean author writing about the experiences of a Caribbean child growing up in the UK, or the experiences of a Caribbean child living in the Caribbean itself, published by a British publisher.

Books that are produced by authors and illustrators of minority backgrounds about majority experiences

This category includes books that do not fit into either of the first two categories because of their focus on mainstream experiences. In the above example, if the Caribbean author has chosen to write about a white British child growing up in London, he or she will not be focusing on a minority culture. His or her book will only be culturally diverse insofar as it is written by an author from a minority background.

Confused? As you can see, there are many ways to unpack the term ‘cultural diversity’ and we hope you will check back over the next few months while we explore the term further.

Until then, happy reading!

Alice and Caroline

Image by Kenneth Lu shared under Creative Commons License via Flickr

Statistics on Cultural Diversity in Children’s Books

in: Children's books

Numbers image Flickr

I have never been one for figures.

If you would like me to understand a concept in numbers, I would recommend first trying to explain it to me in words. Even better, tell it to me as a story and the numbers will begin to look a lot more friendly.

But numbers do have their uses, and some statistics speak loud and clear, without need for interpretation.

Such statistics have recently been published by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on the numbers of culturally diverse children’s books published in the US and Canada in 2014.

These figures are not incomprehensible or convoluted or hard to grasp. They are stark and bleak and a welcome call to arms for everyone who would like to see more equality in children’s publishing.

Of the 3,500 books received by the CCBC in 2014, 69 were about, and written and/or illustrated by, Africans and African Americans, 15 were about and by American Indians, 48 were about and by Asian Pacific Americans and 36 were about and by Latinos.

These numbers in percentages can be rounded up to 1.97%, 0.43%, 1.37% and 1.03% respectively.

That’s about 4.8% overall.

This is not the full story. If you were to include, as CCBC does, statistics about the number of books about people of colour but by white authors, then this number rises a reasonable amount. Likewise, if you were to include, as CCBC also does, books written by authors of colour but not about characters of colour, then the numbers also increase, but not by much.

However you choose to judge the criteria, the estimated percentage of books published in the US and Canada in 2014 by authors and illustrators of diverse cultural backgrounds about culturally diverse experiences comes in at under 5%.

This is quite a shocking statistic, with no need for a story to bring it home.

The tireless staff at the CCBC put it this way: ‘what the low numbers for multicultural literature mean is that publishing for children and teens has a long way to go before reflecting the rich diversity of perspectives and experiences within and across race and culture’.

The UK lags behind the US in researching this area and comparable British statistics simply don’t exist, but the percentage of children’s books by Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic writers (BAME) in British publishing is likely to be comparable.

Christopher Myers has memorably termed this disparity the ‘apartheid in children’s literature’. In his beautifully written article in the New York Times last year he went on to note that ‘children of colour remain outside the boundaries of imagination’, an unacceptable situation as I’m sure you’ll agree.

So where does this leave us? With work to be done!

Christopher Myer’s father, the wonderful late lamented author Walter Dean Myers, puts it better than we ever could: ‘Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?’

Alice

Image by Denise Krebs shared under Creative Commons License via Flickr