On Inclusiveness

The request is loud and clear: kids need more books where they “see themselves” inside. 
While publishers may feel we’re making strides toward showing diversity in children’s books, we still have more ground to cover. This article in Publishers Weekly reports the findings from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education. Upon examining the books received for review, the Center asserts that out of about 5,000 trade books published in 2012, less than 8% represented minority groups in their pages: “3.3% featured African-Americans; 2.1% featured Asian-Americans or Pacific Islanders; 1.5% featured Latinos; and only 0.6% featured Native Americans.”  First Book’s Stories for All Project, featured in the same PW article, is a timely and important response to those statistics, aiming to create awareness of and a larger market for books that emphasize diversity.
Yesterday, our author Vaunda Micheaux Nelson (Bad News for Outlaws, No Crystal Stair) and our Carolrhoda Books editorial director Andrew Karre participated in this NPR news story: “As Demographics Shift, Kids’ Books Stay Stubbornly White.” They point out that while libraries are big supporters of multicultural titles, the trade markets still aren’t buying.
With our close ties to the education market, Lerner editors, designers, and photo researchers do strive to showcase a variety of cultural backgrounds and feature multicultural main characters, as these covers attest:

But we can always do better:  Three times in the last couple months I’ve been asked specifically for books with photographs or illustrations that show girls or women wearing headscarves or hijabs.  Other than books specifically on a Muslim holiday or topic, or a set in a Muslim country, I had a hard time naming titles that do this. It’s definitely an area we can address in the future.
An excellent commentary about gender diversity published in Education Week also caught my eye last week.  Responding to Massachusetts’ passing of guidelines protecting the rights of transgendered students, Sheryl Boris-Shacter, a former teacher, principal, and education professor, called on educators to break down stereotypical views and avoid separating or grouping students by gender. “Elementary schools are still tough places for girls who like playing football and boys who love reading fiction,” she writes. “There is tremendous pressure for young children to conform to the physical images of the media and the activity preferences of their peers and parents. It is why it is critical for educators to support children’s choices and broaden their exposure.” One way to be more inclusive of transgendered students, Boris-Shacter says, is to simply use more gender-neutral language. Saying “students” instead of “boys and girls” is a small but important change.

Proudly, Lerner has been publishing many titles that feature LGBTQ characters and issues. A couple years ago, author Steve Brezenoff wrote an amazing YA novel Brooklyn Burningfor our Carolrhoda Lab imprint, in which the main character’s gender is never even revealed—a challenging feat of writing.

But Boris-Shacter’s points need to be applied to all books—striving for inclusivity and breaking down gender stereotypes in “everyday” situations. When it comes to the images we show in our books, again Lerner book creators try to balance images of boys and girls doing the same activity. Sometimes we’re very successful, such as showing pictures of girls hunting and or performing martial arts in our Sports Zone series. Othertimes less so. Another consideration would be to start showing more diversity in family makeup and structure.

We will keep listening to educators and continue striving to deliver even more books that are inclusive of culture and gender. To quote from Nelson’s comment in the NPR article, it’s not only important for a child who’s validating an identity, it’s important for everyone to “learn to appreciate the differences” and “learn to see the sameness” in each other.