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7 questions we should ask about children’s literature

White nationalism is on the rise in the US and nativism is in the ascendant across the globe.  What role can literature for children play in teaching the next generation to be more empathetic, to respect difference, and to reject hatred? How do we find children’s books that promote these values? And what do we do with classics that offend? Here are some suggestions.

1. What does this book present as normal?  You might follow up with these more specific questions borrowed (and slightly modified) from Nathalie Wooldridge:

  •  What or whose view of the world, or kinds of behavior does the book present as normal?
  • Why is the book written from this perspective? How else could it have been written?
  •  What assumptions does the book make about age, gender, race, class, sexuality, and culture (including the age, gender, race, class, sexuality, and culture of the reader)?
  • Whose perspectives does the book present? Whose perspectives does the book silence or ignore?

2. Does the book have non-white characters? 

The absence of non-white characters can be as hurtful as overt discrimination because when when so many children’s books omit characters of color, non-white children learn that their stories are not worth telling.

3. Are the non-white characters central to the plot or just tokens?

A character’s prominence in the story is a marker of her or his importance. The protagonist is more important than the best friend, and the best friend more important than a secondary or background character. “Token” characters offer a superficial presence, but they do not truly represent that group.

4. How well does the author know the group she or he is representing?

Is he or she a member of that group? If not, how successful has the author’s research been? This, incidentally, is debated. Many contend that, to fully understand the group you’re writing about, you need to be a member of that group. Others suggest that research can help bridge the gap between your experience and your characters’ experiences. And still others note that everyone needs to do research, irrespective of group membership. However you answer this question, remember that the quality of representation is important.

And when a book is accused of promoting discrimination, you might also ask…

5. Who is “they”?

When defending a book with racist or sexist content, people often say “That’s how they thought back then.” This defense should prompt you to ask just who this anonymous “they” might be. Did all girls enjoy seeing themselves mocked in Dr. Seuss’s “The Glunk That Got Thunk” (from I Can Lick Thirty Tigers Today and Other Stories, 1969)? Did all people of African descent enjoy seeing themselves portrayed as simple-minded fools in Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle (1920)? In any given time period at any given place, all people do not think alike. As Robin Bernstein notes, “in the United States, the range of racial beliefs has changed relatively little from the nineteenth century to the present.” The “array of thinkable thoughts” has not changed, but the proportion of people who hold those thoughts has. Think about it: How do people think right now? Do all of us agree on important issues? Claiming “That’s how they thought back then” is not only an oversimplification. It also excuses ignorance by normalizing it, and fails to acknowledge the real harm done to real people in both past and present.

6. Why are people objecting to this book? And what prevents me from hearing their objections?

As Robin DiAngelo notes, many whites are afflicted with “White Fragility”: unaccustomed to racial discomfort, white people often respond to “even a minimum amount of racial stress” with denial, deflection, or anger. They are trying to end an uncomfortable conversation. These responses are not helpful; they merely work to hold racism in place.

So, whites and non-whites should remember: discomfort is not a defense. Nostalgia is not a defense. Affection for the book is not a defense. Assumptions about children’s intelligence (“oh, they won’t see that!”) are not a defense.

The belief in your own goodness or niceness is also not a defense. Being nice and harboring racist assumptions are not mutually exclusive. The kindest, most well-intentioned people often act in ways that uphold racist ideas — without meaning to do so, and without being aware that they are doing so. It is impossible to grow up in a racist culture and not have its ideas infect your thinking. We absorb racist assumptions unconsciously, and are thus often unaware of how these assumptions influence us.

Finally, white people who think that a person of color is overly sensitive about race should remember that non-white people face racism regularly, and should ask themselves: how would I feel if I faced racism every day? And then they should take responsibility by asking themselves: how is my action or inaction creating pain? How am I responsible? What can I do? In other words, failing to act helps sustain a racist status quo. Silence is complicity.

7. Where can I learn more? There are many resources, and so this is not a comprehensive list. But here are five web resources to get you started.

  •  Lee & Low Books has many diversity initiatives, including the Diversity Baseline Survey for publishers, its Diversity Gap Studies, and many blog posts on diversity, race, and representation.
  •  Reading While White: “Allies for Racial Diversity & Inclusion in Books for Children and Teens,” this group of White librarians pledges to “hold ourselves responsible for understanding how our whiteness impacts our perspectives and our behavior.” They publish thoughtful essays and book reviews, and offer useful resources. As they say, “As White people, we have the responsibility to change the balance of White privilege.”
  • Rich in Color — edited by Audrey Gonzalez, Crystal Brunelle, K. Imani Tennyson, and Jessica Yang — is “dedicated to reading, reviewing, talking about, and otherwise promoting young adult fiction starring people of color or written by people of color.”
  • Teaching for Change, founded in 1990, is dedicated to using education to promote social justice. As its website explains, it “provides teachers and parents with the tools to create schools where students learn to read, write and change the world.” The organization offers an anti-bias curriculum, resources for teaching about the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, recommended books, and ways for parents to get involved.
  • We Need Diverse Books is Ellen Oh, Malinda Lo, and Aisha Saeed’s “grassroots organization of children’s book lovers that advocates essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people.” It includes resources for writers (including advice, awards, and grants) and readers (on where to find diverse books), and opportunities for you to get involved. So. Get involved!

Featured image credit: “Children, book” by Sasin Tipchai, Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Roger Allen

    Well, so much for Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass!

  2. Catherine Mitchell

    It’s true, the U.S. has a lot to learn about inclusive and diverse cultures represented in children’s books. Happily Canadian publishers have been ahead of our southern neighbours for quite some time. It would be great if there was a follow-up article using some of our own houses as reference. That way authors and publishers, and especially educators, can all benefit.

  3. Peter Riva

    A thoughtful and interesting nudge for an open debate. Part of the problem here is the mathematics of the argument. How black is black, white white, brown brown? How male is someone or female? Are we going to use a measure of hormones to gender classify or is it always in the eye of the owner rather than beholder?
    I, for one, wish everyone would take a DNA test and get over the racial issue. I can guarantee we’re all pretty much the same. As for gender? If the terms “she” and “he” could be replaced in the same way as we ditched Miss. for Ms. it could not come soon enough. Androgyny is not the point, self-determination and self-identification are.

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