People in the publishing industry choose which stories get told. When it comes to children’s literature, this means people choose which stories are used to inspire and inform children. Yesterday’s Opinion Pages in the New York Times featured the articles of a father and son as they discussed the limitations of today’s books for kids. In “Where are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” Walter D. Myers (father) draws from his experience as a minority kid to criticize the disparity of representation in children’s books. If books transmit values and explore a common humanity, he asks:
What is the message when some children are not represented in those books? Where are the future personnel managers going to get their ideas of people of color?…Where are black children going to get a sense of who they are and what they can be?
Walter’s son, Christopher Myers, uses a stronger language to address this concern. In “The Apartheid of Children’s literature” he explains how today’s books provide a flawed cartography of the world—40 percent of public school students in the U.S. are black and Latino, yet only about 4 percent of the books within their reach in 2013 were about people like them. In failing to portray the lives of people of color, he says, these books create:
a gap in the much-written-about sense of self-love that comes from recognizing oneself in a text, from the understanding that your life and lives of people like you are worthy of being told, thought about, discussed and even celebrated. Academics and educators talk about self-esteem and self-worth when they think of books in this way, as mirrors that affirm readers’ own identities.
While Christopher and W.D. Myers’s arguments may seem specific to Black and Hispanic audiences, they appeal to a larger truth. Claims about the need to recognize oneself as part of the world appear in history, literature, art, and politics. As I strolled through the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition “Connecting Cultures: A World in Brooklyn,” I realized the Chief Curator addressed a similar concern:
For most of history, people perceived the world with themselves as its center. It is not a surprise, then, that our bodies, our shared physical humanity, play such a large role in imagination and in art. An image of the human form can represent more than a specific person, as in a portrait. It can also represent an idea, such as the broader human condition. And it is at the heart of many peoples’ concept of the divine. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, for example, God created man in his own image. Conversely, many cultures have conceived of the divine in humankind’s own image…In its many diverse variations, the human image is the center of our worldview.
Stories are a validation of people’s existence as human beings, an acknowledgment of their value by someone who understands who they are. Today, the specific realities of minority kids are not proportionately celebrated in the publishing world. Sadly, however, these kids are also being told that other people’s lives do not relate to themselves.