When Values Collide with Business: Ethnicity in Children’s Books

On Sunday, March 15, Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers wrote companion pieces for the New York Times entitled, “Where are the People of Color in Children’s Books” and “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature,” about the dearth of people of color in children’s books. According to the study they cite, only 93 books published last year (less than 3 percent) featured black characters. The trend for other ethnicities fares no better.  

This issue hits home for me. I want my two children, who are biracial, to see themselves reflected in the picture books we read together. In fact, my husband and I started a business, called Zoobean, to better curate children’s books and apps. We previously gave our customers, for whom we make personalized selections, the option to choose the ethnicity of the main characters featured in their books. However, we recently stopped offering this added service. To better understand why, let’s dig into some of our data and observations:

1. The majority of our customers selected “I don’t have a preference,” when given the option to choose the ethnicity of the main characters in their children’s books.

This indicated that most people don’t care or, perhaps, don’t feel comfortable saying so. Our customers seem to assign more value to our curating based on a child’s reading level and interests.

2. Of those who did select an ethnicity, 52% chose "White or European American."

The breakdown of other ethnicities selected was 14% Black or African-American, 14% Bi- or Multiracial, 10% Latino/Hispanic, and 8% Asian. Notably, we allowed users to choose as many preferred ethnicities as they wanted. Most customers who selected an ethnicity seemed to select their own ethnicity. However, some chose more than one ethnicity, presumably because their active preference was in fact to receive books with a diverse mix of characters. Those customers made our job easier, but there weren’t enough of them.

3. For those who chose other ethnicities, we kept running out of great choices.

In addition to character type, we also curate by age, reading level, favorite genres, and interests. The simple fact was that not many books featuring “Not So Pink Girls” (one of the “interests” coined by our curators) also have Latina main characters. How many “Zany” books for “New Readers” feature Asian main characters? If parents were okay with most books about African-Americans being “serious,” we might be in business, but most families want to read about ninjas, ballerinas, trains, and creatures. And when it comes to “incidental ethnicity,” which we define as stories where the non-white main character’s ethnicity could be changed without fundamentally changing the story, our company experienced the supply problem cited in Walter Dean Myers’s article.

At Zoobean, we continue to work hard to catalog high-quality books that feature an array of characters. But, after careful thought, we made the tough decision to no longer directly consider a character’s ethnicity in our curating. We created a broader category called “Diverse Main Characters,” which includes a mix of main characters, with an emphasis on diversity. But truth be told, even this label has not been as popular as others like “Daring to be Different” or “Math, Science, and Technology.”

Last year, we had a booth at the National Book Festival here in Washington, DC. I watched kids gravitate toward H.O.R.S.E., a book written and illustrated by Christopher Myers. It’s a remarkable book about “a game of basketball and imagination,” featuring two African-American young men with the gift of gab. On several occasions, the parents of the kids who stopped by our table said something like, “Oh, but have you seen this one?” pointing instead to books that featured white main characters. Now, I don’t consider this parent response to represent any unfair bias but I do see in it an unconscious choice that has real consequences.

We’ve made our decision for our company, for now. And our experience thus far has given us some perspective on how families might better encourage the publication of more books (and other media) featuring people of color:

  1. Take a close look at the books on your shelves. What message do they send to your child? What’s missing?

  2. Ask booksellers for help in finding “read alikes” for your child’s favorite stories, with a request that they feature characters of all different ethnicities.

  3. Buy books with children that don't look like yours. That goes for all of us.

Our pocketbooks send a powerful message. Publishers most want books to sell. They have precious little time before a book is pulled from the shelf. Meanwhile, our start-up first has to gain and keep our subscribers while making sure that our work still matters.

Count us into the chorus which stands to applaud when articles like those by Myers and Myers enter into the mainstream. And when those same articles soon fade from view, what might be left behind is largely a question of demand, supply, and better intention.