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  • Writer's pictureJordan Rivers

Children’s Literature and the Difference in Representation Over the Decades

When I was in grammar school, there was nothing more fun than storytime. I loved getting into the narrative and taking guesses about what would happen next. The mind movies I would create would feel so real. I would close my eyes and picture the characters and how they looked, what they were wearing, and the ways they navigated through the pages. Occasionally, I would open my eyes, look up at the teacher who was reading was such animation and diction, and notice something different. The pictures in the book didn’t quite match what I saw in my mind when my eyes were closed. Instead of a girl that looked like me frolicking in the woods, it was a girl with blond hair and green eyes. The story wasn’t at all what I pictured in my head, and each day after that, I tried to see if there were any characters that looked like me in the pictures. After many weeks I gave up on my search. I figured, “only white people are allowed to be drawn in storybooks.” With a fulfilling and thriving career in writing as a proud Black woman, this was something I’ve continued to think about.

As I conducted more research, it became clear, even in earlier works of literature, only white children were depicted in books. Roughly 80 percent of all children’s books omit the visuals of Black people. It wasn’t until Black authors began to take control of the narrative that we’ve seen an accurate representation of Black characters in children’s books. But still, I was not content with the possibility that a little girl is at school where she doesn’t see herself in literature. Sadly, this is an issue that plagues not only the minds of Black children but other communities as well. On countless bookshelves, it’s a rare find to see Asian or Latino characters. This problem has had quite a long ride, and unfortunately, we are only now beginning to see a shift of stories that highlight the race of a non-white protagonist. However, if society continues to showcase predominantly white authors, we are back at square one.

Giving Black authors a genuine opportunity to have their work displayed and reviewed within the industry is imperative in order to change the narrative for what has been accepted over the decades. While mainstream publishing continues to struggle in terms of their diversity numbers, BIPOC authors have not stopped writing. Through the process of self-publishing, their work is accessible for all. Now more than ever, it is important to seek out these stories and support the authors that can make an impact for children and how they see themselves represented in literature. Our world is large and filled with so many beautiful cultures and different shades of people that deserve to have their work displayed for all children to explore. One day we can all hope that there will never come a day where you close your eyes to see yourself in a storybook.

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