Children’s Books & Representation

Ed. Note: You probably saw that title. It’s not trying to be weird or goofy, just straightforward. I’ve been mulling over racism, sexism, ableism, etc. in the media, and how it shapes our brains. So if you don’t want to read my thoughts on that subject, just skip over this one. I’ll try to be more frivolous tomorrow. 

Sometimes it’s frustrating to be a mom. Okay, usually it is, but especially when there’s so much screwed up in the world, but I can’t go and march because it’s nap time. I know it’s temporary, soon I can shape him into a tiny activist, I donate to causes, blah blah blah… It’s still kind of isolating. I want a pussy hat!

Okay, to be fair, I could make myself one, it’s just never really cold enough here to need a hat.

All day, every day.

I vote, but I live in friggin’ Berkeley, where Democrats are considered conservatives, and Socialists aren’t pushing the envelope of cultural reform. Yesterday I overheard two retired Cal professors talking about getting maced last year at a protest. I’m not even making that up!

Confession: I sometimes make things up. But not that time! 

I was looking for “old protesters,” but I got distracted.

So I need to find tiny acts of insurgency wherever I can. Which mostly means raising the Kraken to think of everyone else as people first, and then let them define themselves however they want beyond that.

Yep. You  know what that means.

I read him books.

My solution to everything.

Growing up in the 80’s in Oakland, I went to a school run by hippies and was raised surrounded by the liberal elite, and I have a distinct memory of cringing every time a book showed up in school or the library that had a Person Of Color on the cover. It was guaranteed to be preachy, with a story about suffering and bravery, and an admonishment at the end implying that I, a 6 year old, was part of the problem. And maybe I was, but Jesus Christ people, kids don’t want that kind of crap!

I can only imagine how depressing it would be to be one of those kids, who only see their faces reflected back at them out of somber books about historical tragedies, or moralizing parables about treating everyone as your equal. I didn’t want to read that stuff, I wanted princesses and elephants! And I don’t think those other kids wanted anything different! (Except maybe trucks. I could never understand the appeal of trucks.)

Apparently this is a thing.

So the books we all loved showed White faces, and the books you had to dutifully sit through showed every other color of the rainbow. If you were lucky, it was maybe a story about Chinese New Year, but you’d certainly never see that same Chinese little girl showing up as a farmer with talking pigs.

I ACCIDENTALLY FOUND THE PERFECT PICTURE

There are a lot of ways that racism is internalized, but I feel like a major one is the subconscious way we learn to categorize people as little kids. A princess is White, extraordinarily skinny, has long flowing hair, and devotes her existence to marrying a prince. More or less the same thing with superheroes (they’re muscle-y and fighting crime, but still cookie cutter), construction workers (men), and farmers (overalls).

Actually, that overall thing might be accurate? Not 100% sure.

The good news: overalls are back! The bad news: they look stupid.

Obviously, things have gotten better since the 80’s. There are a ton of amazing examples of how far we’ve come, from Black Panther, to Wonder Woman (still pretty flawed, but progress), to Ada Twist, Scientist.  

Even Disney pretends to make an effort these days!

But I wish there was more. I wish it wasn’t such a challenge to find children’s books that reflect diversity, not to teach a lesson about it, but just because people in the world come in all colors and shapes, and hey, look, this ballerina just so happens to be from Puerto Rico. Full stop. We’re not going to learn about immigration. We’re not going to learn about migrant workers, or the vibrant community in NYC. Those are all valuable things to learn about, but right now we’re just reading a fun book about a ballet dancer, because that’s all kids really want. Fun books.

Just remember kids, no matter what race you are, ballerinas are freaky flexible mutants.

Basically, what I’m saying is kids are smart enough to tell the difference, and sensitive enough to pick up on it when grown ups say everyone’s equal, but still only gives them White people to identify with.

So please, I’m begging you illustrators, just make some of those characters different colors. Hell, some of them can be blue for all I care, but I can’t help but think that if the world of story books reflected the world around us, all those little brains would grow up into better adults.

I’m required by law to mention here that books come in every color of the rainbow. I think LeVar Burton might have gotten that law passed in the 70s.

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