Diamonds in the Rough

The search for socially responsible, multicultural children's literature.

By Janine Macbeth Sep 21, 2005

Way back in the day when the pickings were slimmer than slim, maybe, just maybe, enjoying a book like The Five Chinese Brothers (first published in 1938) was alright. But today, and yesterday (and even the day before that!), any book that opens, "Once upon a time there were five Chinese brothers and they all looked exactly alike" is completely unacceptable. Let alone the fact that the story was written by a white author and a white illustrator; sharing this piece with children as a fun and magical, unproblematic book is poor guidance, to say the least.  

And yet titles like this one continue to be celebrated by nostalgic white readers. Celebrated, then defended to the point of backlash. For these readers, many of whom were raised with books like these, The Five Chinese Brothers is far from controversial. From the teacher who first heard the story in the 1950s and keeps sharing it with her first grade class, to the enthusiastic reader who attributes criticism of the book to "PC nonsense," folks hold their childhood favorites dear.  

In 1965, Nancy Larrick’s groundbreaking article "The All-White World of Children’s Books" was published in the Saturday Review of Books. Known as the first published critique of the absence of people of color in children’s literature, the article highlighted Larrick’s five-year study of more than 5,000 children’s books. Her study found that less than one percent of these thousands of books reflected any contemporary images of African Americans. This article, coupled with the development of ethnic studies in the 1960s and ’70s, paved the way for the diversification of a predominantly white children’s publishing industry. Ten years after the article, a Jewish San Francisco mother founded Children’s Book Press, the first house to publish exclusively multicultural children’s books. Since then, small presses dedicated to diversifying children’s literature have continued to sprout, building the multicultural children’s book industry from the ground up.

Successful titles with non-white subject matter sparked the attention of mainstream publishers in the mid-to-late 1980s. The still dramatically white children’s book industry embarked upon a two-pronged effort to capitalize on the newly discovered multicultural children’s market. First was an attempt to infiltrate the genre by expanding it to include Euro-centered stories as multicultural. As Jaira Placide, editor at Jump At the Sun (an African-American children’s imprint at Hyperion Books) explains, "When the multicultural children’s genre was first created, multicultural meant everything that wasn’t part of the Euro-centric white mainstream. But eventually the name multicultural got away from its original meaning to include European stories as well."  

Simultaneously, larger publishers have tried to cash in on the burgeoning multicultural market by publishing their own titles with brown faces. To their credit, larger houses have published quality texts destined to be classics, but just as many times (if not more) a general lack of cultural understanding within the company has led to the printing of socially irresponsible representations of people of color. The Other Side (published in 2001 by Penguin Putnam), for example, depicts young girls separated by a literal and psychological fence in the pre-civil rights era. A young African-American girl overcomes these barriers, and the pressures of her peers, to befriend her white neighbor. On the surface, the book promotes the breaking of racial barriers. The story, however, presents the potential white friend as the victim of exclusionary and mean Black girls who have the advantage of age, size and number. This book is more likely to promote shame in young African-American readers than reaffirm positive images of self and community.  

When multicultural book sales began to fall in the late ’80s, market analysts explained that multicultural children’s books were a passing trend. To mainstream white audiences, diversity and brown-skinned faces are trendy. Marina Tristan, associate director at Arté Público Press in Houston, explains, "It has something to do with where you’re coming from. It’s not a trend from our perspective."  

Independent multicultural presses are vanguards for both growth and positive change in the industry. These smaller houses, committed to equal representation in the children’s book publishing industry (and the institutions it directly impacts like schools and libraries) are responsible for the creation and much of the diversity in multicultural children’s literature. They are also more likely to understand the cultural significance of a unique, previously unpublished idea. Wade and Cheryl Willis Hudson shopped their AfroBets ABC Book idea to numerous mainstream publishers who rejected the proposal, claiming there was no market for the book. In 1988, the Hudsons launched their own company, Just Us Books, and began publishing African-American children’s titles. AfroBets ABC Book proved a great success, selling over 350,000 copies. Similarly, when Children’s Book Press released Family Pictures/Cuadros de Familia in 1990, the industry met the book with confusion and little appreciation. It couldn’t understand the straightforward narrative and illustrated family scenes, much less the book’s significance to Mexican-American and Latino families. Despite the industry’s blank gaze, 15 years later the book has proven to be the Press’ all-time bestseller, having sold more than 400,000 copies.  

Multicultural publishers along with authors and illustrators of color are actively and continually expanding their industry. Diverse folk tales from Africa, the Americas and Asia laid the initial groundwork. The genre has since broadened dramatically to include multifaceted historic and contemporary subjects and characters. Among the fruits of their labor are biographies of legends like César Chávez and Malcolm X, as well as stories of children from immigrant and migrant communities. Stories about less traditional families, like those of multiracial children and their differently raced parents and family members, and stories of children raised in same-sex households, though rare, also are increasingly available.

Instead of following formulas for success, these smaller presses take risks and create new opportunities in the field. They bring a consciousness all too rare in the industry. As Jason Low, publisher of Lee & Low Books (a family-run, New York-based publishing house) explains, "A minority-owned company like ours has a personal attachment to the stories we publish. When you are a minority it is not a big leap to empathize with people of color…since the life experiences growing up have been consistent across ethnic groups. We believe that the work we do is important and fills a void in the children’s book marketplace."

Multicultural houses create children’s books that document the hidden histories and stories that before were told only within our own families and ethnic studies courses–stories of exploitation and transformation packaged with grace, understanding and compassion for all generations. Thanks to these publishers, the experiences of underrepresented children across the country and the world are reflected in texts packaged especially for them.

When asked of her commitment to multicultural children’s books, Ruth Tobar, Children’s Book Press’ first executive director of color, sums it up: "This work is political–it’s very political. It’s about the children whose names and faces we’ll never know. We have to keep them in mind."

Review of Multicultural Children’s Books

True Gems

Jazzy Miz Mozetta
Brenda C. Roberts, Frank Morrison (illus.)
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004

Miz Mozetta lives rhythm and dance, and is stylish to the core–but it takes a minute for the young whippersnappers break dancing across the street to recognize it. This is an energizing intergenerational story that breathes history, heritage and Harlem with each word and stroke of the brush.

Baseball Saved Us
Ken Mochizuki, Dom Lee (illus.)
Lee & Low Books, 1993

Your classic American baseball underdog story is the spoon full of sugar for this book’s medicinal crash course in World War II Japanese internment and disenfranchisement. Baseball Saved Us explores racism in a way that neither overly simplifies nor alienates the issues for readers ages two to 102. An absolute must for every library.

Antonio’s Card / La Tarjeta de Antonio
Rigoberto González, Cecelia Concepción Álvarez (illus.)
Children’s Book Press, 2005

Young wordsmith Antonio is faced with a potentially complicated situation. He’s looking for a way to express his love for his lesbian mother and her life partner, Leslie, but is not sure what to do when his classmates continually make fun of Leslie. Antonio’s Card is an emotional story that captures the nuances of Antonio and his family’s experience. The subtleties of the text and illustration are intuitively crafted.

Skin Again
bell hooks, Chris Raschka (illus.)
Jump At the Sun, 2004

bell hooks’ third children’s book with Chris Raschka introduces young readers to race as a social creation that colors a piece of our multifaceted experiences. The text and illustrations’ poetic and lyrical quality present a way of interacting with the world rather than a traditional story format. This approach allows the book to transcend colorblind rhetoric by honoring experience and identity while valuing interpersonal connection. A vital text for all educational levels–from early ed to critical theory grads.

Fools’ Gold

House That Crack Built
Clark Taylor, Jan Thompson Dicks (illus.)
Chronicle Books, 1992

This story, based on the rhythms of the familiar House That Jack Built, traces the creation and uses of crack cocaine from its beginnings on the plantation to its consumption in the inner city. The book’s illustrations are rife with disturbing characters, from drug dealers and gang members to prostitutes and crack babies. Though its intent may be to highlight the many interconnections of drug use and abuse, House That Crack Built fails to present an even picture. Instead, every character is Latino, dark, dangerous and somehow contributes to the deadly cycle of crack cocaine. The absence of a single positive persona of color suggests that people of color (and especially Latinos) are prone to drug use and responsible for their/our own oppression.

Riding the Tiger
Eve Bunting, David Frampton (illus.)
Clarion Books, 2001

Beware the sinister, inner-city urban jungle tiger! A young white boy moves to the city from the suburbs and is lured into a life of crime by the neighborhood tiger. The boy soon finds that the longer he stays, the faster and more dangerous the ride becomes. If the threat weren’t clear enough, the dark, black tiger speaks some strange invented slang. Need we say more?