American publishers of children’s literature are increasingly trying to combat racist clichés, by including more characters from diverse backgrounds in their collections. But this is still insufficient, according to a study recently published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics.
The study in question was carried out by researchers from Columbia and Chicago universities. It reveals that children’s books published in the United States continue to underrepresent people from minorities, despite the repeated efforts of authors and publishers to offer literature representative of all, from an early age.
Very few black or Hispanic characters
The authors of this research work arrived at this conclusion by measuring, using tools based on machine learning, the representation of the skin color, ethnicity, gender and age of the characters appearing in “influential” children’s books. This designation refers to works that have won one of the literary prizes awarded by the Association for Library Service to Children since the 1920s. Indeed, these awards make them likely to have been read by many American children, whether in the classroom, in the library or at home.
This data highlighted the fact that only 2% of “influential” children’s books published between 1923 and 2019 feature black characters. This statistic is all the more alarming since African-Americans then represented 13.6% of the population of the United States. Similarly, 4% of characters appearing in children’s literature titles of the time are of Hispanic descent (compared to 19% of the American population).
More women but in a symbolic role
While researchers have found that there are more women in children’s books than in the past, these characters appear more in illustrated books than in non-illustrated ones. A distinction that suggests “greater symbolic inclusion in images than substantive inclusion in stories“, can we read in the study.
Another notable difference: works of children’s literature often represent children whose skin color is lighter than that of adults, without there being a biological explanation for this. In other words, mainstream children’s books tend not to capture the diversity of today’s world. Male characters are over-represented, as are those with white skin.
A detrimental lack of diversity for many young people
However, children’s literature plays a fundamental role in raising the awareness of toddlers to the cultural and linguistic richness of our societies. Hence the importance of imagining characters in which any child can identify. Unfortunately, many young readers aren’t lucky enough to find physical similarities to the heroes and heroines of their favorite books. Some 45% of black children and teenagers living in the UK say they have struggled to find books in which characters look like them, according to a 2020 National Literacy Trust poll. construction of these young people.