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Children's Books Still Overwhelmingly White

NIU Newsroom

In 1965, the Saturday Review published a landmark study called "The All-White World of Children's Books." Author Nancy Larrick said 6.3 million non-white children were "learning to read and understand the American way of life in books which either omit them entirely or scarcely mention them."

Little has changed, according to Melanie Koss, a professor in the Department of Literacy and Elementary Education at Northern Illinois University.

Koss examined 455 children's picture books published in 2012 and found 75% of the main characters were white.

Thirty-nine of the books, or 15 percent, featured a main character who was black, while only seven books had a Latino protagonist. Asians were represented in eight books, and Native Americans and Middle Easterners tied at two each. No books in the sample featured a multi-racial lead character.

Koss points to previous research about diverse kids reading and characters who look like them:

"It shows that it's important to see themselves in the books in terms of feeling valued in society, of building self-identity and self-esteem," Koss says. "And also it's going to encourage you to read if you can relate to the characters you see."

Koss's study follows last year's "Book Con" controversy at Book Expo America. The event featured a panel of leading authors of children's books. All were white; that angered many participants, who created #WeNeedDiverseBooks to keep the conversation going. This isn't the first grassroots movement to push for change in the publishing industry.

In the 1980s, noted children's author Virginia Hamilton led an effort to get publishers to release more multicultural books. Koss says sales of these books increased as more became available, but it didn't last. She says a similar sales bump occurs each year during Black History Month, when big-box stores and online retailers offer books about Martin Luther King.

This isn't a sustainable approach, according to Koss. "I truly believe we need books that just happen to have characters that are diverse, rather than diversity being the issue of the book."

In the interview link below, Koss talks about some of the diverse books that are selling well or getting good reviews. She also reveals her favorite book to read to children.

Koss's study appears in the Journal of Children's Literature.

Good morning, Early Riser! Since 1997 I've been waking WNIJ listeners with the latest news, weather, and program information with the goal of seamlessly weaving this content into NPR's Morning Edition.