Extensive research has demonstrated that access to print reading materials (board books, stories, and informational books) early on in a child's development has both an immediate and long-term effect on their vocabulary, general knowledge, and comprehension skills. Studies have also shown that children of color who see their own identities and experiences reflected in literature have higher self-esteem, better social-emotional functioning, and increased classroom engagement.
Yet, according to Reading is Fundamental (RIF), the largest non-profit children's literacy organization in the United States, only 1 in 300 low-income children own a single book. And a large percentage of those books—and, more generally, books that these children have access to in their schools and libraries, or via literacy initiatives such as RIF's Books for Ownership program and First Book—are hardly representative of these children's racial, cultural or linguistic lives, explained Sarah Park Dahlen, associate professor of library and information science at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota and co-editor of Research on Diversity in Youth Literature, an academic journal. "It's an access issue, a diversity issue, and a cost issue," Park Dahlen explains.
She works with a local chapter of Reach Out and Read, an American nonprofit that distributes books to families nationwide at their well visits, funds literacy-rich waiting rooms, and trains healthcare providers on how to best educate parents and caregivers about the importance of early childhood literacy. Of her local chapter, Park Dahlen says, "They have a warehouse full of donated books, most of which they would not distribute to their families of color. [The books] are not relevant or interesting or even of physical high-quality. Organizations that are really well-intentioned cannot get the books that their communities need."
"The representation of children in media is really important, and children deserve to 'see themselves' in books," Dipesh Navsaria, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health and the founding medical director of Reach Out and Read Wisconsin. "We need more and more diverse books to be published [for us to distribute cost-effectively]. We need more languages, we need more representations of different cultural practices."
"Diversity should not be 'othering' and we should not resort to tokening, or the inclusion of one character with diverse attributes," he says. "All children are better off there are realistic and varied depictions of children of various backgrounds."
Sailaja Joshi, founder and C.E.O. of Bharat Babies, a Massachusetts-based independent publisher of multicultural children's books, noticed a gap in access to high-quality educational materials featuring characters of color, she took action. In tandem with the pre-order campaign of the company's newest title—Finding Om, which centers around an American child of Indian and Botswanan descent and her mindful journey—Bharat Babies launched a crowdfunding initiative, #1001DiverseBooks, which aimed to raise enough money to provide 1,001 copies of Finding Om to a partner literacy nonprofit for distribution to underserved children. Joshi reached her goal—in five days.
"I kept hearing and seeing firsthand just how hard it was for children, educators, even non-profits to get access to high-quality, diverse children's books," Joshi says. "I felt very strongly as a company that we had an obligation to help in whatever way we could."
Despite this seemingly bleak outlook, experts are not deterred from doing the work to put a diverse array of books into the hands of very young readers. Educational disparities exist because of interlocking systems of oppression, such as racism and capitalism. "It's a massive issue, and it's going to take a lot of work from multiple sides to improve the whole situation. But educators like me can have a tremendous influence on what kinds of books we expose our students to," Park Dahlen said. Many of her fellow scholars of color, a growing cohort, are also making an effort to introduce students to a wide range of books. She also stressed the need for white allies, saying, "We people of color didn't create this problem, and it's not only our problem to fix."
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Parents and potential book donors, too, can educate themselves about their communities and their needs and not solely donate (or gift) books seeped with their own childhood nostalgia. For example, Park Dahlen recalled the number of copies of Little House on the Prairie (a series that follows a white settler family in the Midwest during the 1800s, a time when thousands of Indigenous Peoples in the same area were forced off out of their homes or killed) that were bound for Minnesota's many Indigenous children before she intervened. Instead, parents can seek out more diverse books, whether to donate or fill their own home libraries. Park Dahlen frequently encourages people to consider contemporary titles first—she recommends The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich as a modern alternative to donating Little House on the Prairie.
Poushali Bhadury, assistant professor of children's literature at Middle Tennessee State University, said there are lots of resources online that "offer a social justice-oriented approach to education and literature and access." She cited the blogs Latinxs in Kid Lit and American Indians in Children's Literature, as examples; both offer in-depth analyses of how people of color are portrayed in children's and young adult books.