Media plays an active role in shaping and re-shaping identity. Diverse and positive representations are important to foster development for children -- especially when it comes to children’s literature.
As written by scholar Dr. Sims Bishop, “literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience.”
When Dr. Sims Bishop wrote this passage in 1990, she discussed how she rarely saw positive representations of Black girls in children’s literature and how growing up was hard when her identity and community were constantly misrecognized.
For years, this type of representation has been lacking in children’s literature. Although there has and continues to be progress made, according to data compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, half of the stories published by US publishing companies in 2018 were about white children.
As indicated by the “Diversity in Children’s Books Infographic 2018,” created by David Huyck and Sarah Park Dahlen literature about animal and non-human subjects made up 27%, while combined, literature about different groups of children of colour made up 23%.
Despite the decrease in stories featuring solely white children from 73.3% in 2015 to 50% in 2018, the 2018 statistics highlight that there still needs to be a greater push for publishers to produce diverse content.
When Simran Jeet Singh sought out to write his children’s book, Fauja Singh Keeps Going, he said that he was told these types of character’s weren’t “relatable.”
Comments like this point to a lack of understanding and lack of desire to produce diverse content within the publishing community -- something that needs to change.
I am a firm believer in the power of a good story. I remember reading each night when I was younger, imagining the different adventures I could go on, similar to the mainly white characters I would read about. The experience of reading different stories and learning about how society worked fuelled my desire to always stay curious.
From an early age, books allow children to reimagine the world, devoid of any harmful representations, stigmas, or stereotypes.
Children’s literature has the potential to have an impact on children and on society, as books are an effective way to teach children about concepts of race, equity, diversity, and justice from an early age.
This is why books with diverse stories and characters aren’t just for children of colour, but for everyone, so they can have a greater understanding about different lived realities outside of their own.
Growing up, I didn’t have access to stories about South Asian characters, and despite being in classrooms where the majority of my classmates were South Asian, having that type of representation would have made a world of difference when navigating mainstream society.
Accessibility is also another important factor here. For many children, their classroom or public library are the first places they may be introduced to reading, which is why it’s crucial to have a variety of books available in these spaces.
This can only happen when publishing diverse content shifts to becoming the norm.
Diverse storytelling, however, cannot be tokenistic, but requires a well thought out plan.
There needs to be consultation with the communities you are trying to represent, which is why although it is so important to have diverse characters in children’s books, it is equally as important to have diverse authors producing these pieces.
The book Fauja Singh Keeps Going was produced by an all South-Asian team, something that allowed Fauja’s Singh’s story to be written and illustrated with more depth and consideration.
We have the power to push for a diversity in content when it comes to children’s literature by purchasing these types of stories that are released. Reach out to nearby schools and libraries if you can, to donate books so young people within our local communities have access to stories we didn’t have as children.
Even as adults, we require positive affirmations and representations to feel included within the mainstream, and this is even more true for children who are still trying to make sense of this large world.
Check out the Canadian Children's Book Centre's Social Justice & Diversity Book Bank for diverse children’s books.
In addition, here are some incredible children’s books by South Asian authors:
Fauja Singh Keeps Going: The True Story of the Oldest Person To Ever Run A Marathon by Simran Jeet Singh and illustrated by Baljinder Kaur
Gurpreet Goes to Gurdwara: Understanding the Sikh Place of Worship by Harman Pandher
Binny’s Diwali by Thrity Umrigar and Illustrated by Nidhi Chanani