Black Books Matter: The Importance of Diversity in Children’s Literature

by Channon Oyeniran

Reading is essential to everyone, but I think most importantly to children! For this Tuesday Justice post, I want to focus on children’s books and the importance for kids to read diverse books and read (or hear) stories with main characters who (unfortunately) aren’t normally showcased.

Why it’s important for Ara:

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My son, Ara, loves to read! Every night before bed either my husband or I will read him a story, and on the nights when we are both too exhausted to read a bedtime story to him, he will remind us! One of his favourite books is Please, Baby, Please by Spike and Tonya Lewis Lee. Not only is reading to children important at his age (my son is two, but much younger in the photo), but it is also important to choose books and stories that represent and reflect who my son is, his life and his realities. More and more I am on a search to find books for Ara with main characters who look like him and stories that showcase black people in a positive light, rather than through the negative views that all too often describe black people. I also want my son to read stories where he sees characters from all walks of life that teach him to be accepting of everybody he meets and encounters. 11340497Living in Toronto, I know my son will encounter people from various cultures and backgrounds, and we want him to see everyone as equal and important. Representation of black people and other minorities in a positive light, especially for children, deeply matters because for far too long, black children grew up without seeing powerful, strong role models who looked like them, whether in books, on TV or in real life! (In fact, this is such an important issue for me and my desire for my son to grow up with the experience of seeing black people just like himself has even made me want to write a children’s book on black history in Canada. Stay tuned…)

Why it’s important for white children:

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Not only is it important for black children to see themselves represented in an uplifting and positive way, but it is also important for children who aren’t black to also see black children represented in this way as well. For centuries, black people have been portrayed in a negative way, oftentimes being displayed to the masses as foolish, stupid, angry, dangerous, uneducated, oversexualized, etc, etc, etc. There is no shortage of negative images and portrayals of black people, so when we are portrayed in a positive and uplifting way, it is crucial that children (actually, all people) see these images and hear our stories. When we open up our children’s minds and hearts at an early age to diversity and inclusion, they grow up to become adults who treat others equally and don’t judge people based on isolated experiences. But rather, their upbringing and the stories they read as children would have shaped their views about people who look different than them. Reading is so powerful and the stories that are told can be even more powerful! That is why starting our children at an early age to read stories about different people and cultural groups is significant to their growth, learning and shaping as human beings and global citizens.

Marley Dias & #1000BlackGirlBooks:

“I’m working to create a space where it feels easy to include and imagine black girls and make black girls like me the main characters of our lives.” – Marley Dias

download (1)Marley Dias definitely understood at a young age the importance of reading and the importance of finding stories where the main characters are black girls. At the age of 11, Marley was tired of reading stories that had the same main characters, main characters that didn’t look like her or anyone in her family. So in November 2015, Marley launched the campaign #1000BlackGirlBooks, with the mission to find and list children’s literature that have black girls as the main characters. As of June 2017, not only did Marley accumulate more than 9,000 books, but she also obtained her own book deal! Marley said of her experiences with books before she started the campaign, “Frustration is fuel that can lead to the development of an innovative and useful idea.” After doing some research, Marley realized that there was a lack of books that had black girls or girls of colour as the main character and that if she was frustrated by the lack of representation in children’s books, then many other people probably were too.

Marley said after doing research and being in a position to try and change this problem, “I had a lot of choices about how I was going to address this problem. Option 1: focus on me, get myself more books; have my dad take me to Barnes and Noble and just be done, live my perfect life in suburban New Jersey. Option 2: find some authors, beg them to write more black girl books so I’d have some of my own, special editions, treat myself a bit,” she said. “Or, option 3: start a campaign that collect books with black girls as the main characters, donate them to communities, develop a resource guide to find those books, talk to educators and legislators about how to increase the pipeline of diverse books, and lastly, write my own book, so that I can see black girl books collected and I can see my story reflected in the books I have to read.” 

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She, of course, chose option 3 and I’m so glad that she did! Not only did she see a problem, but she recognized the gap and decided to fill it. Now, this campaign has not only benefitted her but benefits other children, and impacts the education system, so that more books on diversity are taught to all students. I love what Marley Dias has created and I love that she is shining a light on an issue such as reading that is so instrumental in the shaping of our children’s minds, thoughts and foundation.

So, now what? 

At Tuesday Justice, we like to let our readers what they can do, how they can get involved. This one is easy:

Read books to your kids!

Read books with diverse characters. Read books that tell stories about people of other ethnicities, other races, other cultures. Read books that teach empathy and inclusion.

And if you don’t have kids, buy those kinds of books for your nieces and nephews and cousins and friends’ kids.


For more information…

Books for children:

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