Playdate with Fictional Friends: the Importance of Diversity

Playdate with Fictional Friends_Struggling to Find DiversityIn preparation for Monday, which is Martin Luther King Day, we have been talking to our five-year-old twins about who Martin Luther King, Jr. was, what he believed in, and how his efforts (and the efforts of many others involved with the Civil Rights Movement) changed our society.

The difficulty in explaining our nation’s sordid history to my children suggests how unnatural racial hatred is. We are not born to hate others based on perceived differences. My girls are a quarter South Asian, but look Euro-American with their red hair and pale complexions, making them look quite different from me. Interracial families are the norm for them, including their maternal grandparents, their parents, and many of the parents of their classmates — quite a change from when interracial marriages were illegal in some states until Loving v. Virginia (1967).

Their books, however, do not reflect this diversity.

There’s Dora, who’s better known for her TV show than for her sparsely-worded books, and also Not Norman, a cute story featuring an African American child that upsets one of my daughters because she cannot believe a child would be so cruel as to want to give up his pet goldfish for a more interactive pet (he learns to love his fish, of course). Otherwise, my twins’ fictional friends either look like they do — that is, like Fancy Nancy — or are anthropomorphic animals. One of our favorite books is President Obama’s Of Thee I Sing, which is a non-political children’s book, but it profiles diversity with a focus on adult role models, and so does not develop any characters for my children to get to know (I wrote about it here).

Many have decried the lack of ethnic minorities in children’s literature. Aimee Eubanks Davis makes the point that “Children’s literature (and all media, for that matter) should reflect American society’s broad mosaic because it enriches all of our lives.” I agree, believing that reading about children from diverse backgrounds promotes tolerance. Such connections through literature are all the more important because, for some children, the only opportunity they have to meet children of different backgrounds comes from books. We live in a country where residential segregation remains firmly entrenched (by income and by race), despite the fact that Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) declared race-based restrictive covenants on real estate unconstitutional. Segregation in education is also common more than half a century after Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Clearly, racial animus remains, at least implicitly, if so many of us continue to choose where we live and go to school in part by the color of our skin.

The Civil Rights Movement had many legal victories through the courts and eventually through Congress and state legislatures, but change doesn’t happen through laws alone. It has to happen in the hearts and minds of every individual, starting in childhood. On some small but significant level, increased diversity in children’s literature could help bring us a little closer to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream, one in which people “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

We’re not there yet.


  1. Reblogged this on and commented:
    When we are developing Diversity Programs for organisations we aim at them mirroring the diversity of our communities. In this article, it is interesting to note that so often our children’s literature can still lack a diverse view of society.

  2. I am glad my children attend a school with a diverse population. If you look at their class pictures, my pale little Northern European children are the minority. I was surprised a few years ago when I attended the birthday party of my nephew. His parents had invited the whole class to the party palace. The majority of his classmates were white as they send their children to a charter school which I believe has a waiting list for children to attend. It seems rather elitist to me. As a teacher from California, we are always looking at our textbooks to make sure they are culturally diverse. But you are definitely correct about the lack of diverse books for independent reading. You really have to look for them.

    1. Your children’s school sounds similar to our school district. I don’t think it’s majority-minority, but I also don’t think any ethnic background predominates, not anymore. It used to be a largely Jewish area, and my portion of the district still is, but that’s changing. We’re happy to live here.

  3. My mother was aware of this even when I was a child; it’s why she included Whistle for Willie and other Ezra Jack Keats books in our reading when we were very small. But I do think that implicit bias is an issue. Right now most of Baguette’s books feature Sesame Street monsters, but I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on authors and characters to make sure that we have a mix in our house.

    I remember going to an education conference, and one of the presenters talked about race and children’s literature. Her point was that it’s normal to gravitate toward the familiar, so it’s important to include the unfamiliar as well–and that over time, that becomes more familiar, too.

    1. My parents were also aware of it, too. They found us baby dolls that looked more like we did (we’re an interracial family), but I don’t remember much diversity in the main characters of the books I read. There were fewer options back then (but you do mention some good ones–Keats).

  4. I guess it depends on where you grow up, what your school exposed you to, what your parents exposed you to, etc. I remember reading a book about a white girl who made friends with a black girl, and the story showcased both their similarities and differences culturally and otherwise. I remember a teacher reading us “Black Boy,” a big eye-opener to the way some black kids had to grow up. That’s why racism boggles my mind, because in the world I grew up in we were taught race is no different than hair color, in the sense that it’s a feature of who you are, but not a definer of who you are.

    That being said, I think it’s nice to promote diversity to your children by exposing them to different cultures and colors. But I highly doubt most people are thinking of buying only books with white people on them because they’re white, or black because they’re black, etc. I think people buy books because they heard that they’re good. And I hope there’s never some affirmative action movement to make sure only a certain number of these books or those books are published. I certainly wouldn’t want to be published just because I’m a woman and not because my story was good enough to demand it.

    But there’s still that balance, in making sure you’re not just watching or reading the same things all the time because it’s what you’re comfortable with. That’s what often attracts me to documentaries, because I can see what life is like for another culture, but different cultures are a personal interest of mine.

    In the end, it sounds like you’re doing your best to expose your children to as much of the cultures of the world as possible so they are more understanding of the differences between cultures and can be okay with differences. I also like that you’re explaining what the holiday is. You wouldn’t believe how many of my ill-informed college peers would ask the foreign students if they celebrated the 4th of July in their country. Come on, it’s college. Time to turn that brain back on. 😉

    1. I agree with you, except that I believe implicit bias (there’s a link in my post) is at play here. I don’t think parents or publishing houses are making a conscious decision to choose books with white characters. It’s an implicit preference that goes into the decisions about what books to publish, promote, and buy. Then those become the books that we hear are so great. The ones that feature more diverse characters don’t make it into the mainstream and are harder to find (if they were published at all).

      I also agree that exposing children to different cultures directly is the best way, but that’s not easy to do when you live in a homogeneous neighborhood. I’m lucky that I live in a diverse one (race, religion, and family composition), but I remember how common residential segregation was when we were looking for our house.

      Thanks for the comment!

  5. This is an important topic. I’m less well-versed in books published for young children, but I think there is a growing trend of great literature being written by and featuring characters from diverse backgrounds. It could be a lot more prevalent, and a lot more widely read, to be sure.

    When I read simply for my own pleasure, I didn’t necessarily seek out diversity in my reading. If something caught my interest, I’d read it, and I certainly didn’t want to exclude it, but I wasn’t looking for it. Now, I make a deliberate effort to seek out literature that will appeal to people from a variety of cultures. I’m also more likely to purchase books by less well known or debut authors, particularly if it features diverse characters. When we weed books in the library, I’ll fight to keep books that might not circulate heavily but help keep our collection diverse for those who want to read about a Pakistani girl.

    Of course, reading with your children and exposing them to these characters is perhaps the best way to foster tolerance and acceptance.

    1. It’s nice to hear that you’re looking to maintain and increase diversity in the books at your library. That’s very important. I wonder to what extent YA books feature non-white characters. It seems almost all of them have white women on their covers, although the ones I have read tend to have friends of diverse backgrounds included in the stories. One of the things I liked about Marcelo in the Real World is how it focused on a boy from a more diverse background (at least racially, not necessarily socioeconomically).

  6. Excellent post about a very important topic. Just as with other issues of tolerance and human rights, we have keep working at it, raising awareness and keeping these issues on the front burner.

    1. Thanks! As a parent, I’m trying to be more aware of who my kids’ fictional friends are. It takes so much more effort to find books that feature characters of color, and that shouldn’t be the case in 2013.

  7. Great post! You bring up some really relevant points. When I read the comments in reply to the December NYT article that brought more public attention to the topic, I realized many still don’t understand the need for what you discuss above. Many argue that it’s not important–a book takes you to another place and for that reason you don’t need to personally identify with the characters. I couldn’t disagree more. Certainly, we all realize how important it is to connect with the main characters of a book in one way or another. Now that doesn’t mean they always have to be representative of one’s background, but if they never are, it’s a problem. Despite the growing diversity in our classrooms, this past year NPR’s top 100 Young Adult books had less than 10 books with main characters of color. I’m not suggesting that a variety of literature would completely remedy the problems of reading proficiency in our classrooms, but having been a teacher, I think it would help tremendously. I think your point about encouraging tolerance (and I would add acceptance) is also extremely important to this discussion–we should be reading books that expose us to something different than what we already know. Obviously, this is a bit of a ‘soap box’ for me, so I won’t keep going on. Thanks for the great writing!

    1. I completely agree–and this is largely the problem with lists like NPR’s Top 100. The sample of responses–NPR readers/listeners, who tend to be whiter/older/more educated than the population as a whole, and of that subset, internet-y people who wrote in suggestions and voted–isn’t representative. It both excludes a large portion of the population, and perpetuates certain books being widely read.

    2. I completely agree, too! I’ve always been aware of what my children are reading, but my effort to increase racial diversity in their reading material is a newer phenomenon. For example, we’ve always had a lot of bilingual books (to complement their Spanish classes), but now I’m trying to find ones that are written by Latino authors and feature Latino characters as opposed to Spanish translations of classic books (like “Buenas Noches Luna” and “El Gato en el Sombrero,” which my kids want to read all the time). That’s one of the reasons I find your blog so helpful–I ordered “Me Llamo Celia” after reading Ailesha’s post. So, I’m making more of an effort to veer away from the books that make NPR’s top 100 list, hoping that I will find other options for my kids that are more representative of our society.

  8. Children don’t start out with bias, but society influences. I never looked children’s books in this way though, but you note how they either have or not have have underlying diversity. Not having children, it seems that I see diversity more in media. Living in a city I see it more. Maybe just more aware, I am not sure. But also I notice in the city the kids are the ones sticking together with their own race, yet the parents live side by side. Again, not sure if this would be everywhere though. Our street has many races and the neighborhood is as one.

    1. There is definitely more diversity in the media and in books now than there used to be. I still don’t think it’s enough-it doesn’t reflect the type of effortless diversity that exists in your neighborhood or in mine.

      Have a wonderful time in St. Lucia!

  9. It’s true that at one time many books did focus on one particular race. I think diversity in literature has improved over the years since then, but it still has room for improvement. It seems to me that literature can reflect a society’s thoughts and views at the time it was written. Yet it can also be transformative in changing public opinion.

    Great post!

    1. I agree that it has improved over time. I don’t know if there were any mainstream children’s book characters of non-European descent when I was a kid. Still, it should be easier to find books with diverse characters than it is. Thanks for stopping by!

  10. You bring up an interesting point. I did not notice the lack of racial diversity in books growing up, but it’s not something children outright think about. Now looking back, there really were not a lot of books I read with diverse characters. The only character I can really remember was Addy from the American Girl series. Really, we should be exposing children to more diversity in books.

    1. It’s also not something that parents think about. I’ve wondered whether our racially homogeneous bookshelves are the result of a publishing industry that does not produce racially inclusive literature for children or the result of my own failure to buy racially inclusive books. It’s probably a little of both, though I will say that books featuring ethnic minorities seem to be harder to find (less marketing? less availability?). I try to buy books with diverse characters (particularly Spanish bilingual books), but I should try harder. Thanks for the comment!

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