Racial Diversity in Children’s Books: The Pros & Cons of Subtlety

Redheaded Sri Lankan ReaderI want my daughters to read books that feature characters from diverse racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Back in May, as part of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, I wrote:

My daughters need to know that everyone has a story to tell, and that stories written by or featuring people of another race, ethnicity, or gender aren’t just stories for that demographic. They need to know that people of all races, ethnicities, and genders are able to attain success in the world (including in the literary world!). It’s not enough for me to tell them these messages; they need to see it for themselves in real life and in the books they read.

But how should authors convey this diversity in their books?

It’s difficult to write about race or ethnicity in a clearly recognizable way without over-emphasizing the stereotypical differences between racial groups that are the easiest to describe, such as skin color, which is a controversial and—to put it mildly—imperfect indicator of racial, ethnic, or cultural background.*

I’ve been thinking even more about this topic since reading Madeleine’s review of Anne Ursu’s The Real Boy on The Book Owls, in which she noted how the novel features people of color in a subtle way, making their racial background “quietly part of their characters without being a defining characteristic or an afterthought.”

Real Boy_Thumbnail CoverAfter a review like that, I had to read The Real Boy for myself. It’s a middle grade fantasy novel that focuses on a young boy named Oscar, a “hand” for a powerful magician. He’s different, though not because of his racial or ethnic background. He’s an orphan, he can read when he isn’t supposed to know how, and most noticeably, he struggles with human interaction. He would likely have an Autism-like diagnosis in our world (much like Marcelo from Francisco X. Stork’s Marcelo in the Real World), another type of diversity that I am happy to see represented in literature.

I ended The Real Boy thinking it was an interesting story, and a better choice for its intended young audience than Ursu’s “title-dropping” Breadcrumbs. The novel’s treatment of what most of us would perceive as race is very subtle: one reference to “olive-touched skin,” a few references to hair, and a few racially ambiguous illustrations (that, at least in my e-book version, were grayscale). I appreciate that Ursu doesn’t draw too much attention to physical characteristics that readers would commonly associate with race; doing so could have made those characteristics, like skin color, seem more important than it should to impressionable readers who might be too young to understand our society’s racially charged history and the ways in which that history impacts the present.

I suspect, though, that some young readers might miss that Ursu’s characters are most likely people of color. I also suspect that whether or not a reader notices diversity in literature probably depends on that child’s background and community, which in the United States, is often de facto segregated by race, even though the Supreme Court denounced de jure segregation in housing and in education well over half a century ago.

Our neighborhood is different, though. My daughters attend a public school with no racial majority, and this integrated community informs the way they interpret literature. For them, when the text of a book is subtle about race, they assume that the characters come from a community that is just as diverse as their community is.

They haven’t read The Real Boy yet, but this topic came up as we were reading L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, which was published more than 100 years ago in Canada. One of my daughters remarked that, in her imagination, Gilbert Blythe looked like a boy in her class named Shawn, who is African American. As she explained, “it’s because Gilbert’s cute and so is Shawn.” My daughter has no concept of the racially homogeneous community in which Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe lived (for now, I’ve skipped the references to “little French boys”), nor has she seen the movie versions of this novel.

All she knows is how L.M. Montgomery described Gilbert in the text:

He [is] a tall boy, with curly brown hair, roguish hazel eyes, and a mouth twisted into a teasing smile.

That sounds like Shawn, at least in my daughter’s opinion. I’d love to see an updated, racially integrated movie version of the novel someday. If Kenneth Branagh could do it with Much Ado About Nothing, there’s no reason it can’t be done for a retelling of Anne of Green Gables.

Just as my daughter sees Anne Shirley’s world as looking like our community, some of Ursu’s readers probably interpret Oscar’s world as looking the same as theirs.

In the past, I’ve said that one of the many benefits of diversity in books is the potential to expose children from racially/culturally homogeneous communities to diverse fictional friends, hopefully encouraging them to “embrace the similarities we share as human beings and celebrate the differences — instead of fearing them.”

Obviously, though, integration in fiction is no substitute for the real thing.

*See More Thoughts on the Censorship Spectrum: Cleansing Racist Themes From Children’s Books

**The image above is of one of my daughters from September 2010; The image below shows what she and her twin look like now (June 2014):

Twins Now_June 2014

About A.M.B.

I am an attorney, the mother of three, and the author of Two Lovely Berries (by A. M. Blair), a novel exploring the struggle for individuality between identical twins. Check out my "About Me" page for more information.
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31 Responses to Racial Diversity in Children’s Books: The Pros & Cons of Subtlety

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  5. Jennifer says:

    A very thoughtful consideration, interesting to consider that perhaps the diversity in this one example might be so subtle as to be lost on its readers. Agree that it is so important for all our kids to read diverse books, whether to find someone like themselves represented in fiction or to expand their understanding and connection to a larger world.

    • A.M.B. says:

      Thanks for stopping by! It’s wonderful that Anne Ursu featured characters from diverse backgrounds (including one with Autism-like characteristics), but I think few children would realize it. When my children read it, I might ask them to draw the characters to see how they interpreted it. They’ll probably read it on an e-reader, and the illustrations in the novel aren’t easy to see.

  6. moldydaisy says:

    I just stumbled across your blog and cannot word how much I appreciate it. I came across the diverse books campaign on tumblr and have been learning as much about it as I can. As a Caucasian child, I never had a problem finding a book with a character I could relate to and I always assumed everyone else could as well- after all, stories are about people and by people- needless to say, that bubble was popped. I find it very encouraging to see the number of people who are speaking up against this and bringing awareness to so many other’s lives! Thank you for this!

    • A.M.B. says:

      Thank you! It’s so important for children to be able to see diversity in the books they read. My daughters encounter fictional characters who look a little like they do (red hair), but they don’t “meet” many characters who are South Asian or multi-racial/cultural. I want them to read books that feature types of diversity they recognize from their lives and that also feature types of diversity they don’t encounter as often. I hope more children’s books like this will be available soon.

      • moldydaisy says:

        I agree with this so much. Finding books with diverse characters is hard enough, and then finding books which don’t stereotype, ect is even harder. I honestly have hope that the strength of this grassroots movement is going to make a significant difference over time.

  7. marjma2014 says:

    Reblogged this on kyrosmagica and commented:
    Reblogging this from The Misfortune of Knowing. Great blog post about cultural diversity in books. I come from a culturally diverse background my father is half Scottish, half English, my mother is Eurasian (Malaysian with a Scottish father). So I do believe depicting people of different nationalities in books is important. I hope to write a novel, or a shorter piece of work, along these lines in the future.

  8. marjma2014 says:

    Hi. Loved the picture of your girls. Beauties. I come from quite a culturally diverse background, my father is Scottish, and my mother is Eurasian, (Malaysian with a Scottish father!). So I do think that more culturally diverse books are of great importance thank you for your wonderful blog post. Very interesting. Reblogging it on http://www.kyrosmagica.wordpress.com

    • A.M.B. says:

      Hi! Your background sounds fascinating. My family is also multicultural (My mother is Sri Lankan and my father is mostly Irish American). My husband’s background is mostly Irish/Scottish, but we were still very surprised when our daughters ended up with red hair.

      Thanks for reblogging the post, and thank you for stopping by.

      • marjma2014 says:

        Your welcome! My daughters are about as unlike each other as you can imagine. My eldest is blonde, my youngest dark, but it doesn’t end there, the differences are many. In fact they don’t look like sisters at all, and couldn’t be more different in personality. Neither of them look much like me either!

  9. mariekeates says:

    Living in a large port city it sometimes seems that everyone here comes from somewhere else so I guess we are pretty accepting of different races and cultures. It’s always good to read a novel giving a different perspective though.

  10. I love the photos! Your daughters are so adorable.

    Throughout my childhood, there was quite a bit of diversity. My dad was in the military for the early part, and even when we settled down in one place for the last chunk of it, my neighborhoods and schools had people from a variety of cultures. It wasn’t until I went away to college that I found myself in an environment that was mostly Caucasian like myself. It was a bit of a culture shock in a way. My husband, then friend/boyfriend, didn’t notice it as much because he came from a predominately white community. I, on the other hand, noticed it immediately. It wasn’t something I ever completely grew used to.

    My daughter is fortunate to be attending a school/daycare where there is some diversity. And I like how her teacher incorporates that into her lessons and the stories the children are told. By doing so, they are celebrating their differences, normalizing them, and showing just how much alike they are all at the same time.

    • A.M.B. says:

      Thank you! I’m going to miss the matching gaps when they’re gone. :)

      Like you, my first experience with a racially/ethnically homogeneous environment in the US happened when I went to college. It was so different from my high school! 9/11 also happened during my college years, changing the way people in this country talked about race. Suddenly, being “different” wasn’t something we were celebrating.

      It’s great that your daughter’s teacher incorporates diversity into her lessons! It’s so important that our children learn to “celebrate their differences, normalizing them, and showing just how much alike they are all at the same time.” Well put!

  11. Roy McCarthy says:

    AMB whatever you put under the pillow for the tooth fairy in the US I bet you’re running short of them. That’s the cutest pic.

    I’m likely to put a big foot in here somewhere but, children’s books aside, do you think the reader ought to be told, or ought to infer a diverse mix of characters in a story? For example, I read a pretty standard crime thriller recently and found I simply couldn’t picture the three main characters. I’m pretty sure one was a white woman, her sidekick was Hispanic and the third was a black policeman. But the author just didn’t say. Is it just wrong to be specific, or was the author trying to be ultra PC? I confess to being very unsure, including when it comes to my own writing.

    • A.M.B. says:

      Thanks, Roy! I’m trying to get as many pictures of the matching gaps as I can (my sister took this picture). I’ll be a little sad when their two front teeth finally come in.

      “[D]o you think the reader ought to be told, or ought to infer a diverse mix of characters in a story?” That’s a good question, and I don’t think there’s a clear answer to it. It’s nice when a book is subtle about race/ethnicity because, as Roy (of Reel Roy Reviews) said in the comments below, “nuance and subtlety normalizes difference.” At the same time, though, it’s easy to miss the diversity, and readers are sometimes left with a hazy picture of what the characters look like. I’m sure there are writers who have done it well, and Anne Ursu is among them (even if her younger readers might be more likely to overlook it).

  12. Lindsey says:

    Oh my goodness, what a precious picture of your girls!

    I find the idea of picturing characters to be very interesting. If we get no physical indicators at all, how do we picture people? Do we make them out to look like us without thinking about it?

    I am trying to pay attention and make sure that David is reading a variety of books that feature all sorts of characters, but I think it is important to pay attention to how they are portrayed. There is something frustrating about reading a book with the standard adventure trio – the main Caucasian boy and then sidekick girl and sidekick friend of a different ethnicity.

    • A.M.B. says:

      Thank you! I’m going to be sad when their two front teeth come in. I’m trying to get as many pictures of their matching gaps as I can!

      The “standard adventure trio” is very frustrating! If you have any recommendations for books that feature different types of diversity, please let me know. :)

  13. I’ve been trying to make a point of including people from different ethnic groups in current and upcoming stories; this was a timely read. When I read about your daughter comparing Gilbert in the book to her classmate, Shawn, it made me smile. And then I wondered how long it would take for her to be taken aback by the racism still so prevalent in our culture, and I worried for her. Kids look at the world so naturally, accepting everything at face value. It’s a shame adults come along and screw it up for them. :(

    • A.M.B. says:

      “Kids look at the world so naturally, accepting everything at face value. It’s a shame adults come along and screw it up for them. ” So true. Where we live isn’t perfect, but it’s so much better in terms of diversity and acceptance than so many other places. I also grew up in this neighborhood, and I remember being shocked by how homogeneous other places were.

  14. This is a really interesting post + I loved reading your thoughts on culturally diverse books. It really made me reflect on my own elementary experience, and I started remembering many, many culturally diverse books in my school’s library. I grew up in a small predominantly Caucasian town, with little diversity in religion, race, etc. Our school worked hard to “expose” us to diversity through books, and I never realized how important that was until I read this post! Your community sounds fantastic!

    • A.M.B. says:

      Thanks, Caitlin! It’s interesting to read about your experience. I’m glad that your school worked so hard to raise awareness about diversity. Literature is certainly an important tool for doing that. I love my community, which is actually the same one I grew up in (my parents live only a few blocks away from us!).

  15. This is a very thoughtful and interesting analysis. I agree with your assessment, and I do feel that nuance and subtlety normalizes difference which is probably key. I don’t want to lose the distinctions that make us all special culturally, but for kids, emphasizing how alike we all are is probably the stronger message. Having grown up with Sesame Street and come of theater age in the era of colorblind casting, I suppose that is why I feel as I do.

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