Where is My Son in His Children’s Books?

Carter has an adorable little habit of stealthily holing himself up on the floor by the bottom corner of our bookshelf where all his picture books are stored. One by one, he pulls out ALL of his books, flips through the cardboard pages and makes a pile that slowly spreads out around him. Eventually, he looks like a little king, sitting on a pile of haphazardly discarded books, happily flipping away through his most recent discovery. This makes his former-English-teacher-bookworm-used-to-spend-summers-reading-as-many-books-as-she-could-because-clearly-that-was-what-all-the-cool-kids-did mom and his bird-encyclopedia-bedtime-reading-stay-up-until-unholy-hours-of-the-morning-reading-about-raptors–bird-nerd dad very very proud.

Sometimes I secretly spy on him from around the corner. Other times I can’t resist and I pull him onto my lap and read to him. It is the only time he will sit still for more than ten seconds at a time. One day, we were flipping through a hand-me-down truck book when I realized to my horror that all the people in the book were white. No surprise there, but I thought I screened those out of our library!

No, seriously. I flipped through it when my cousin dropped it off and I thought all the pictures were of trucks. But, I forgot to check the little tabs that slid open, which incidentally, are Carter’s favorite part of the book. Beneath the tabs were all pictures of white men and one white woman. Because obviously, except for the rare, elusive white woman, everyone who drives a large vehicle is a white man. The book immediately went into our donation bag.

A few days later, I almost blew my lid when I was reading a library book written in Chinese to Carter only to realize that the book was filled with illustrations of white children! AUAHGHGAUGHAGUAGHGH!!!!!!

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So naturally, I went into rage-mode and combed through the rest of his books again. I was like a cartoon with windmill arms throwing a blur of books onto a perfectly formed pile. Except my pile wasn’t neat. I may or may not have paused for a moment to ask myself if I was being just a tad insane. Who rages on the cute little board books on their child’s bookshelf? Apparently I do.

(*Clarification: I don’t get rid of all books with white children, I get rid of books like Trucks that should be more realistically representative of all people and then I try to limit the number of books that only feature white people in significant roles. Conscious limiting is necessary because most books fit in this category.)

I am hyper aware of everything that Carter “reads.” I’m extremely picky about the books I purchase for him. I am hyper vigilant and intentional about the library we curate in our home. I have to be. I cannot control the world that will inundate him with highly stereotypical, derogatory and de-norming, devaluing messages about people of color, women and people with diverse identities. I cannot hide him from the world that makes some people – people like me, him, his grandparents, his uncles and aunts, our friends, his caretakers, my students – completely invisible. He has already entered this world and the messages are pouring in. I despair daily that I cannot stop them. So, while he is with me for these few precious years, I can try to teach him truth and nurture his identity in its fullness.

The task is gargantuan.

Parenting is a herculean endeavor. Raising a critically conscious, loving, mixed-race Mormon child in a world saturated with a dominant wealthy, white male, Judeo-Christian, able-bodied, straight, Eurocentric narrative can sometimes feel impossible. I never stop thinking about this. Ever.

Last December, I spent hours scouring the internet for children’s books that featured a Chinese child celebrating Christmas. Nothing. I broadened my search for an Asian-looking child celebrating Christmas. Nada. This morphed into a hunt for any children’s board books featuring an Asian child. All I could find were a miniscule handful of books about Chinese New Year and dim sum. Or books that were set in ancient China. Or with Chinese children with names like Tikki-tikki-tembo-no sa rembo-chari bari ruchi-pip peri pembo and Chang. So yeah. You can guess how I feel about that.

I did manage to find An Angel Just Like Me, by Mary Hoffman, about a young Black boy who wonders why all the angels on his Christmas tree are white and goes looking for an angel that looks like him. This year, I happened into a small bookstore and stumbled upon Carol of a Brown King, a children’s book of Langston Hughes’ Christmas poetry illustrated by Ashley Bryan. But, still, nothing Christmassy for little Chinese or mixed babies like Carter.

The statistics about children of color in children’s books are remarkably dismal. According to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, of 3,500 children’s books published in 2014, just 5 percent (179) were about Black people, 1 percent (36) was about Native Americans, 3 percent (112) were about “Asian Pacifics” (which I can only assume lumps together people from all Asian regions, the Middle East and Pacific-Islanders), and 2 percent (66) were about Latinos. This means that only 11 percent of children’s books were about children of color.

Additionally, of the 393 children’s books about people of color, 57 percent (225) were written by people not from the culture about which they wrote or illustrated. According to Hannah Ehrlich at Lee & Low Books, “Realistically, these numbers likely mean that there are more white creators speaking for people of color than people of color speaking for themselves.” Whoa. Not surprisingly, there is an urgent need for more creators of color in the publishing world. And basically everywhere else too.

The few books featuring children of color that exist are all filed away in the Multicultural section of the bookstore. Because if you’re not white, you belong on a shelf for people who are different. Like the food on the grocery store shelves labeled Ethnic Food, Asian Food or Hispanic Food. Because it’s not what “normal” people do so it must be separated from their stuff. And then people wonder why the sales aren’t as high.

Sorry. Venting.

I know that these things matter. I love reading and always have. But growing up, it never even occurred to me that people like me could and should be part of my literary experience too. I didn’t even know it was a possibility. I was always reading about other people, other worlds and experiences. It wasn’t until I read The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan, that I ever had the sensation of seeing myself mirrored in a novel (don’t get me started on my experience in History classes). And that book is half-fantasy. It’s not even one of my favorite books, but it gave me something I didn’t know I needed. Validation. Affirmation. Recognition. Humanization.

It isn’t just the humanizing and affirming strength that comes from seeing oneself reflected in print that makes representative literature an important issue. The dehumanizing, othering affect of never seeing oneself in print or elsewhere is a destructive force for individuals and communities. Author Christopher Myers put it beautifully in his opinion article, “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature” in the New York Times:

[Children] see books less as mirrors and more as maps. They are indeed searching for their place in the world, but they are also deciding where they want to go. They create, through the stories they’re given, an atlas of their world, of their relationships to others, of their possible destinations.

We adults — parents, authors, illustrators and publishers — give them in each book a world of supposedly boundless imagination that can delineate the most ornate geographies, and yet too often today’s books remain blind to the everyday reality of thousands of children. Children of color remain outside the boundaries of imagination. The cartography we create with this literature is flawed.

Perhaps this exclusivity, in which children of color are at best background characters, and more often than not absent, is in fact part of the imaginative aspect of these books. But what it means is that when kids today face the realities of our world, our global economies, our integrations and overlappings, they all do so without a proper map. They are navigating the streets and avenues of their lives with an inadequate, outdated chart, and we wonder why they feel lost. They are threatened by difference, and desperately try to wish the world into some more familiar form. As for children of color, they recognize the boundaries being imposed upon their imaginations, and are certain to imagine themselves well within the borders they are offered, to color themselves inside the lines.

I, like many others, understand this feeling of being lost. Though I have lived and studied race, privilege, power and oppression for many years, I didn’t understand that part of me was lost until I was in grad school. I was 30. We read one article about the construct of the model minority myth and it was revolutionary for me. Because even in the dialogue about race, I am invisible. Ah, my soul seemed to say, this is why I often don’t feel like I belong, like there is a language I’m not speaking, a something I’m not part of. This is why I constantly feel like I am learning to navigate a world I was born into and can’t quite figure out. I thought I was always the problem and finally realized it wasn’t all me.

Liiiiiiiggghhhttttbbuuuuuuulllbbbb.

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I finally realized the depth of internalized oppression living within me. I had thought about it as it related to others, but not to me. And the layers go deep.

Here is one slightly superficial yet remarkably complex example: I visited Taiwan a couple years ago and, for the first time, flipped through a magazine struck by the number of Asian women and men covering the pages. I’m not a fashion magazine consumer (as you’d know if you just looked at my day-to-day unkempt, makeup-less, screwball get-ups), but I was mesmerized by the Asian women gracing page after page. The realization that Asian women are beautiful hit me like a ton of bricks. This was followed by the realization that I didn’t need a different face to be beautiful too. So many years saturated with images of a Western ideal has absolutely ingrained an idea of beauty in my mind. I don’t place tremendous value on my external appearance (remember, unbrushed hair, no makeup, throw-on-whatever-is easiest-before-I miss-my-train fashion), but I realized, even as someone who tries to be conscious of these biases, how much I’ve been affected. I look in the mirror and wish I had bigger eyes, longer eyelashes, a pointier nose and thinner lips. There is power in representation. There is deep devaluing without it.

I want Carter to grow up in a world where he can read about himself and people like him, where stories mirror his reality, where illustrations and media include and feature people who look like him and his loved ones. This includes white people and a European ancestry, but I’m not worried about him getting enough of that. It’s everywhere.

I want him to read about children with physical or learning disabilities, children who were adopted, gay parents, single parents, immigrant families, people in poverty, people of different faiths, non-fetishized cultural stories, “non-traditional” family structures (whatever that means) and so much more. These are his stories too. I also want him to learn about the experiences of diverse peoples who have different stories, histories and realities. I want him to value all the world’s people and their myriad experiences. I want him to perceive “normal” from an expanded and more inclusive perspective. I want him to have a real map and an unbounded imagination with which to understand himself and to navigate the world.

And, frankly, I want other kids to have the same. I want other kids to read about people like my son. I want them to read about children who have different identities, experiences and realities. Because I want them to know that these stories and the people in them are beautiful and valuable too. Because without a complete map, they will grow up to perpetuate the dominant narratives and inequities of today.

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So, I’ve decided that I’m going to become a children’s book author. I’ve written drafts for a couple board books; I have ideas for tons more. I just need to find a publisher and I’m giving myself a deadline. If no one will publish my stories by June 2016, I will publish them myself. There, I said it. Now it’s official and I can’t renege. So, if you happen to be a publisher of children’s books or know someone who is, send me their way!

Carter’s library is currently filled with an inordinately high number of books with animal characters. But, we are slowly adding to our collection of representative, diverse books. I’d love your suggestions. There aren’t many of them, but they are out there and I’m on a mission to find them.

And to create them. Wish me luck!

 

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