The other day while reading to Jonah, I noticed something that really disturbed me.
We were reading Policeman Small by Lois Lenski, a classic for toddlers and preschoolers.
I noticed the same thing in a Curious George book.
Crowds of people, and all of them white.
All of Jonah’s books aren’t like this, but too many of them are. And I’m not ok with that.
Part of the issue is that we have a lot of classic children’s books, written decades ago by white authors. Policeman Small was originally published in 1962, and the Curious George series was published in the 1940s.
There were plenty of black Americans and other people of color living in this country during that time, so that’s not an excuse, of course.
What bothers me the most is when I start thinking about the reasons why an author/illustrator might include only pictures of white people in his book.
Was the illustrator’s ideal of a perfect little town all homogeneously white? Did he just not think to include black characters in even the smallest way? Was this an intentional, racist decision? Did these illustrations reflect the reality the author saw around her?
As a parent I start to feel pretty troubled when I delve down deep into these issues. If as a rule my child’s books contain only white people, what lesson does that teach about what the world is supposed to look like? About what kinds of people should be included in a neighborhood, school, church or city?
Am I participating in systems of oppression by reading my child books that look like this?
In my mind this also harks back to the election, and the unsettling discovery of just how divided the U.S. electorate is right now. A quote:
“The biggest difference between the two parties is the urban-rural divide…Politically, that translates into race and identity as the main political dividing line. Rural and exurban America is very white, and generally inward-looking. Urban America is very diverse and cosmopolitan.” (Source: NBC )
Many Trump voters live in places that look a lot like these books, and that they want to keep looking a lot like these books. Or perhaps used to look like this and do no longer. We see where, and to whom, that attitude has led us.
And that’s not an image I want to present to my son as an ideal.
I’ve written before about the fact that my childhood did look a lot like these books. I experienced essentially zero racial or cultural diversity until I was about 13 years old, when I switched from private to public school. This is one area where I feel that my parents really fell down on the job. (Love you Mom and Dad.) I am determined to do better.
Jonah’s external environment is already going to be very different because of living in a diverse urban city. But Jonathan and I are committed to exposing him to diverse examples of all the different ways that people can look through the media that he experiences at home.
Jonah is going to be getting The Snowy Day , a masterpiece of children’s literature featuring a black main character, and a few other books by this same author for his birthday. My goal over the next year is going to be to diversify his collection to include more books featuring diverse characters.
Easier said than done, perhaps: Children’s books, particularly fiction books, are overwhelmingly white.
Do you have a suggestion for a diverse children’s book or series that is appropriate for toddlers and preschoolers? I’d love to hear it!