Today we honor and celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. It is fitting that we do so, but the work he did is still far from finished. Daily newspaper headlines declare it. Personal interactions in the cities and towns of all states in our country demonstrate it. Political rhetoric surrounding the current president and the campaign for the next one underline it.
And, sadly, the state of publishing of children’s literature perpetuates it. Today, Scholastic pulled a new book from circulation, A Birthday Cake for George Washington. Although it appears that the author, illustrator and editor had noble intentions in telling the story of Hercules, George Washington’s enslaved chef, the book created an outcry from readers offended by the story and the illustrations of smiling slaves. And “not intending to offend” is never a good enough reason to offend. I believe pulling the book was the right thing to do.
My friend and fellow writer Christine Taylor-Butler recently commented on the dearth of stories for black children on subjects other than slavery. “When I interact with local librarians the question always comes up ‘Why are the Black books always about civil rights and slavery?’ I replied, ‘That’s all publishing seems to want.’ Publishers say consumers won’t buy books with black characters. I respond ‘because you keep giving us more of what we’ve already said we don’t want.’”
Yes, children need to know about the history of slavery, the Holocaust, the Japanese-American internment, the struggle for women’s rights, and the history of discrimination against many groups. But, as Ms. Taylor-Butler says, this is not the only story. Every day we can choose to find books with characters whose courage, kindness, humor, intelligence, love, and growth moves us and our young readers. Why do so few of those stories feature characters of diverse backgrounds? Why do publishers and illustrators seem to take for granted that a character not specifically designated as “ethnic” must be, by default, white?
There is a movement taking hold, and we who write, publish, and edit children’s books must sign on. Go to http://weneeddiversebooks.org/ for more about it. We must be a champion for writers who need to be heard, for children who need to read their stories. Those of us who come from a place of privilege (even when it may not feel like it) need to open our ranks and welcome other voices to the conversation.
Hundreds of books are published every year. There is plenty of room in the marketplace for books featuring great characters of all skin tones, ethnicities, family structures, genders and gender-identities, religions, socio-economic statuses, cultural traditions, and types of disabilities. Exposing children of all backgrounds to the richness of the human experience enriches us all.