Finding children’s books with characters that look like her daughter has not been easy for Felisha Burleson of Dallas, Texas. Burleson says trips to the library with 9-year-old Niyah, who’s Mexican and African American, are often discouraging. Like many parents of color, she rarely can find books featuring people like them.
“I haven’t found any books so far for [Niyah] to read that reflect either my family’s racial or structural composition,” Burleson said. “I think it’s very important she see people who look similar to her and have similar culture in books so she understands that the world is diverse.” Burleson wants her daughter to feel that she has an important role in society by absorbing the contributions of characters who resemble her.
Although Niyah has not expressed concerns with a lack of representation, Burleson believes she’ll eventually notice.
“I would like to see an inspiring story of a mixed girl who embraces her own journey in terms of happiness, education, and creativity,” Burleson said, adding that she’s frustrated with the few books she has seen that stereotype Black/mixed girls as sassy or overly outspoken. The perfect book for her daughter, she says, would feature someone who is strong yet reserved and able to build healthy relationships and resist peer pressure.
Research shows representation in the media is an important part of identity development, particularly for marginalized individuals. However, people of color continue to be underrepresented in many mainstream mediums, particularly children’s literature.
Roughly 80 percent of the children’s lit industry — writers, publishers, executives, and reviewers — is white, according to a recent survey by Lee & Low Books Inc. Only 22 percent of children’s books features a protagonist of color, and an even smaller percentage — 12 percent — is authored or illustrated by a person of color.
The We Need Diverse Books grassroots organization in Bethesda, Maryland, is working to correct this.