Incidental

When our son was just a toddler, we very randomly came across the beautiful picture book, All The World.  It pictured a family that looked like ours, and about a day in the life of a brother-sister pair.  The story was simple and lovely. As we read it, my son, for the first time ever, pointed to the little boy and said, “Me! Me! Me!”  He saw himself in All the World.  And the best part?  The book is simply remarkable, regardless of the characters’ backgrounds.

This experience led us to create our own book discovery site and highly personalized subscription service, Zoobean.  It also gave us firsthand experience of what it feels like to find just the right book for your child and family. This can be true when you’re looking for a book about new siblings, maybe one about a particular country, or a whole variety of topics, but it’s particularly powerful when it comes to characters’ backgrounds.  Like most parents, I want my kids to both see themselves in books as well as see worlds and people beyond their own day-to-day perspectives.  For this reason, I’m really happy about the spate of news stories that has come out recently addressing the lack of diversity in children’s books.  And even if I wasn’t excited, I had just about every single person I know sharing the stories with me, so I paid close attention!

NPR led with this story, and was followed by a ton of blogs and local articles commenting on the foundational research about kids’ books not reflecting the diversity of kids in the US. According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, startlingly few children’s books from 2012 featured children of color.  To better illustrate this, Tina Kugler created this graphic:

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Yeah.  We have a long way to go.  What I see as incredibly important is that along with improving these statistics, we see an increase in books with characters whose ethnicity is incidental. Just yesterday someone posted on my FB page asking about a book like “Pinkalicious” but with an African-American character.  This parent specifically asked us for something that was just a fun book, like one his daughter presumably already loves, but with a main character who looks like her.  The books are out there, but they are very few and far between.

Think of some of your favorite books of all time.  Would those books change by flipping the main character to be from a different background?  At Zoobean, we call this “incidental ethnicity,” and tag books accordingly.  There are some great examples of this.  What about The Twins’ Blanket or Phoebe and Digger.  The list is getting longer, and I hope it continues to grow so that all of our kids both see themselves reflected in their books and experience the world through others’ stories.  

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When I headed up K-12 education outreach at Google, I spent a lot of time thinking about getting girls engaged in technology and computing.  A major part of the problem that we found was simply girls’ image of computing.  Socially awkward guy, eating pizza, coding alone, late at night….you get the picture.  When we met with folks in Hollywood to talk about this image problem, we often used the phrase, “flipping characters.”  Why not make the amazing hacker on a given show be a really hip woman?  These seemingly simple changes could change perceptions dramatically.  Of course, it was all about what sells, who sells….sound familiar?

Hollywood aside, I hope that current efforts to increase the representation of diverse kids in children’s books result in more books that are remarkable stories, with main characters who just happen to look like all of us.

Jordan Lloyd Bookey is Chief Mom and Co-Founder of  Zoobean, an online discovery platform and subscription service for remarkable children’s books.