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As Demographics Shift, Kids' Books Stay Stubbornly White

At a San Jose, Calif. library, a young reader browses a shelf of books featuring a variety of main characters: ducks, hens, white kids, black kids. Libraries help drive demand for children's books with nonwhite characters, but book publishers say there aren't enough libraries to make those books best-sellers. (Flickr)

When it comes to diversity, children's books are sorely lacking; instead of presenting a representative range of faces, they're overwhelmingly white. How bad is the disconnect? A report by the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that only 3 percent of children's books are by or about Latinos — even though nearly a quarter of all public school children today are Latino.

When kids are presented with bookshelves that unbalanced, parents can have a powerful influence. Take 8-year-old Havana Machado, who likes Dr. Seuss and Diary of a Wimpy Kid. At her mothers' insistence, Havana also has lots of books featuring strong Latinas, like Josefina and Marisol from the American Girl Doll books. She says she likes these characters because, with their long, dark hair and olive skin, they look a lot like her.

Havana's mother, Melinda Machado, grew up in San Antonio, and her family is from Cuba and Mexico. She says she didn't see Latino characters in books when she was a little girl, so she makes sure her daughter does.

"But you do have to look," she explains. "I think children today are told, 'You can be anything.' But if they don't see themselves in the story, I think, as they get older, they're going to question, 'Can I really?' "

Only a small fraction of children's books have main characters that are Latino or Native American or black or Asian. And it's been that way for a very long time. In 1965, The Saturday Review ran an article with the headline "The All-White World of Children's Books" — and the topic is still talked about today, nearly 50 years later.

Do White-centric Books Sell Better?

So why is diversity in children's books such a persistent issue? One theory is that it's all about money. "I think there is a lot of concern and fear that multicultural literature is not going to sell enough to sustain a company," says Megan Schliesman, a librarian with the Cooperative Children's Book Center.

But Schliesman says that belief is a myth — after all, some companies publish multicultural children's books and are profitable. For instance, Lerner Books published the nonfiction picture book Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal. The book, which told the story of a black lawman in the Old West, won awards, got attention from libraries and independent bookstores and became a best-seller for the company.

"There is an enormous amount of demand for this kind of content from libraries," says Andrew Karre, an editor with Lerner Books. According to Karre, public and school librarians try very hard to put books with a wide range of characters on their shelves.

But while librarians are influential, they can't make a book sell. "There are something like 6,000 public libraries in the country," Karre says, "And even if they buy five copies of the book for their collection ... that's not going to crack those best-seller lists of any kind, really."

Why Diverse Book Options Matter

Vaunda Micheaux Nelson wrote Bad News For Outlaws, as well as several other books about African-Americans. She is also a librarian at the public library in Rio Rancho, N.M. She says that young people need to see themselves represented on the page so that they will continue reading.

"If they don't see that then perhaps they lose interest," Nelson says. "They don't think there's anything in books about them or for them."

Nelson adds that it is also important for white children to see characters of different races. "Not only do they learn to appreciate the differences," she explains, "but I think they learn to see the sameness, and so those other cultures are less seen as 'others.' "

Nelson says she understands that publishers are going to respond to what the market demands. Right now, the vast majority of best-selling children's books are by and about white people. But as the U.S. population changes, Melinda Machado thinks the books American children read will change, too.

"I think eventually the demographics and the economic power will catch up," Machado says. "Will it catch up, you know, while my daughter's still a child? Probably not."

Publishers might want to catch up a lot sooner, though. According to new data from the Census Bureau, nearly half of today's children under 5 years old are non-white.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's hear, now, a startling statistic. A quarter of all public school children in the U.S. are Latino but only three percent of children's books are by or about Latinos. Quite simply, when it comes to diversity, children's books are, well, failing. That's according to a report by the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

As part of our series on Children in Media, NPR's Elizabeth Blair tried to find out why children's books are so white.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Eight-year-old Havana Machado likes Dr. Seuss and "Diary of a Wimpy Kid." But a mother's influence can be a powerful thing.

HAVANA MACHADO: These are my American Girl doll books. One is "Meet Josefina" and the other is "Marisol."

BLAIR: Characters she likes because they look a lot like her, with long dark hair and olive skin. Havana Machado has lots of books with strong Latinas, because her mother insists on it.

MELINDA MACHADO: But you do have to look.

BLAIR: Melinda Machado grew up in San Antonio, Texas. Her family is from Cuba and Mexico. She says she didn't see Latino characters in books when she was a little girl. So she makes sure her daughter does.

MACHADO: I think children today are told you can be anything. But if they don't see themselves in the story, I think, as they get older, they're going to question can I really?

BLAIR: Only a small fraction of children's books have main characters that are Latino or Native American or black or Asian. And it's been that way for a very long time. In 1965, the "Saturday Review" ran an article with the headline "The All-White World of Children's Books," 1965.

Megan Schliesman, a librarian with the Cooperative Children's Book Center, thinks the reason we're still talking about it is money.

MEGAN SCHLIESMAN: I think there is a lot of concern and fear that multi-cultural literature is not going to sell enough to sustain a company.

BLAIR: That's a myth, says Schliesman, because there are companies, publishing multi-cultural children's books, that are profitable. Take a book about the real-life African-American deputy U.S. marshal, Bass Reeves.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIO BOOK EXCERPT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Reading) Bass hollered from the saddle of his stallion, warning Webb to give up. The outlaw bolted. Bass shook his head. He hated bloodshed, but Webb might need killing.

BLAIR: "Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal," won awards and got attention from libraries and independent bookstores. It became a best-seller for the publisher, Lerner Books.

ANDREW KARRE: There is an enormous amount of demand for this kind of content from libraries.

BLAIR: Andrew Karre is an editor with Lerner Books. He says public and school librarians try very hard to make sure there are books with a wide range of characters on the shelves. And while librarians are influential, they can't make a book sell.

KARRE: There are something like, 6,000 public libraries in the country and, you know, even if they buy oh, five copies of the book for their collection, it still - that's still not going to crack those bestseller lists of any kind, really.

BLAIR: Vaunda Micheaux Nelson wrote "Bad News For Outlaws" as well as several other books about African-Americans. She's also a librarian at the public library in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. She says young people need to see themselves represented on the page so that they'll continue reading.

VAUNDA MICHEAUX NELSON: If they don't see that, then perhaps they lose interest, they don't think there's anything in books about them or for them.

BLAIR: And she says it's also important for white children to see characters of different races.

NELSON: Not only do they learn to appreciate the differences, but I think they learn to see the sameness, and so those other cultures are less seen as others.

BLAIR: Nelson says she understands that publishers are going to respond to what the market demands. And right now, the vast majority of best-selling children's books are by and about white people.

But as the U.S. population changes, Melinda Machado thinks, so will the books American children read.

MACHADO: I think eventually the demographics and the economic power will catch up. Will it catch up in my, you know, while my daughter's still a child? Probably not.

BLAIR: Publishers might want to catch up a lot sooner. According to new data from the Census Bureau, nearly half of today's children under five years old are non-white.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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