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If Books Can Open Doors …

December 8, 2014

I am happy to share a guest post by a Philadelphia writer, which maybe can offer some ideas of how our images of ourselves and of others begin forming very early, even from the books we read or that are available.Melodie

—–AllisonWhittenburgGuest blog post by Allison Whittenberg

A trip to the bookstore can make one believe that children’s books are only for white people and animal lovers. Don’t believe me? Take a trip to your local bookstore and look around.

Exhibits A through Z can be found most obviously in the children’s section. Many covers there feature animals, both imaginary and real. Prehistoric and present day. Mythical or cuddly.

Another image you’ll see is white (cuddly) children. There are some exceptions. Ezra Jack Keats’ popular picture book Whistle for Willie is usually prominently displayed, even though it’s 50 years old.


Venture into the tween section and there are fewer animals but an array of spunky girls and mischievous boys. All attractive, but insufficiently diverse. Move into the teens and the animals have vanished. The cover girls are less sassy, but model slender. The young men appear dreamy. But again, young people of color are missing in action.

I’m not alone in making this observation. Articles have run in the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, and the Huffington Post. Most of these articles cite a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin. It stated that from the 5,000 children’s books published in 2013 that they examined, just 93 were about black people (even fewer were written by black author). This rate is down from 172 African American books in 2008 — 83 by African Americans. A low tally is also recorded for Latino, Native American, and Asian American books.

What is to be done? Plenty. To start, we could buy more books by minority writers, thus increasing demand. Of course, it’s not enough to just change the bean-counting mentality about books by minorities. There are also social problems to address, including school dropout rates, literacy issues, and the myth that reading is for nerds — or white people.

But let’s say that all those things could be improved. Still, we book-buying people of color will continue to purchase Llama Llama Red Pajama and Harold and the Purple Crayon for our kids, in part because so much of reading is pretending. For 32 pages of a picture book, the reader can imagine herself as a lovable pet or a cherubic, bald white kid. There are no mental gymnastics needed to see the humanity in these characters.

That kneejerk empathy doesn’t transfer to characters of color, though, even for us. In fact, it would seem that the message out there is that writers of color and their characters aren’t needed. Peek into the library of any book-loving young person of color and you will find it replete with the Madeline series, Pippi Longstocking, and, of course, Harry Potter. Don’t stop there. Look at Amazon’s list of “100 Children’s Books to read in a Lifetime. Aside from Esperanza Rising and The Watsons Go to Birmingham, there aren’t many multicultural offerings. Never mind the Pura Belpre and the Coretta Scott King Awards that showcase the brilliance that’s available to readers.

But forget classics for a moment. We need junk-food books too, like the best-selling The Case of the Time-Capsule Bandit by Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer. Usually, writers of color aren’t producing genre books such. Nor do you see much from them in science or fantasy fiction, or even love stories. Books about identity abound for multicultral authors, but too often those works don’t appeal to people outside of a given culture because they fear that they can’t relate — hence the aversion to the cover of a book that features nonwhite characters.

There are plenty of serviceable, lightweight books that only seek to entertain, not deliver some heavy message, featuring white, middle-class heterosexual teenagers. Just once can’t the handsome, rich insensitive boyfriend in a young-adult novel be black. Can’t the unattainable girl in a tween book be indigenous? And why must the one with the smart mouth be a sister?

With so many of our neighborhoods and schools segregated today, books that share a multicultural experience to a broad range of young readers are more needed than ever. Yes, I cringe at the thought. And, no, such a state of affairs would not make the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. proud. We should be able to do more for our children to help them relate to all kinds of people in the real world. But if books can help open those doors, then we should make sure they are widely available. Growing up, I treasured the time I spent reading, even though the bulk of that reading didn’t reflect my race or ethnicity.

I wish I could say that just writing about this topic would make a difference, but the reality of years of poor sales for writers of color tells me otherwise.

Still, we must hope. “Books transmit values,” said the beloved children’s author Walter Dean Myers. “They explore our common humanity.”

So, writers, readers, publishers all, let’s keep exploring.


Allison Whittenberg lives in Philadelphia and writes poetry, plays and novels including Life Is Fine, a coming of age novel, Delacorte, 2008.


Issues of race, education, and justice all swirl in these days of deep division and discord here in the U.S. My heart grieves, but I don’t feel like I have much to add to the controversies and conversation. This guest post, related to my interests in books, writing, families and education seemed like one way to respond on this Finding Harmony blog.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, stories and responses to Allison’s post.


Earlier this year in my Another Way newspaper column, I wrote of some of my upbringing around race, reflecting on the life and witness of another prophetic voice, Vincent Harding, when he spoke last January at my alma mater. He was 82 at the time; he passed away in April.


  1. Melodie, thank you for introducing me to an author with an impressive oeuvre I should have known about sooner. You are doing your part in awakening appreciation for everyone’s contribution regardless of race by publishing this post.

    Allison, you call attention to an embarrassing disparity in publication. Just recently I unearthed my copy of Little Black Sambo, a story I treasured as a child, overlooking the racial overtones that now seem pejorative. Society in general (or maybe the face we see in the media) lags way behind the values many embrace. Your quote from Walter Dean Myers expresses hope though: Books . . . explore our common humanity.

    On Wednesday, I discuss similar issues regarding recent news events.

    • Allison permalink

      Childhood such a magical time when you are open to all and every experience. However, as a child, you can only soak in what’s placed before you. I’m hoping that things will improve, but clearly we’ve been going the wrong direction for a long time.

  2. Marian, not surprised to see your comment. I will look for your post on Wednesday, and hope that Allison sees (and perhaps responds to) your comment.

    For me personally, it is hard to deal with what was published at a time when it was such a different time and era and we were swimming in different waters than we do now. And we couldn’t see the water because it was our environment. I also liked the reminder from Myers that books transmit values. Yes, always.

    • Allison permalink

      Hi, Melodie. Thanks so much for posting this. In light of recent events, I feel like we all need to do more understanding “the other”. It’s hard to leave our comfort zone and walk a mile in someone else’s moccasins.

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