ATLANTA - Years ago, when she worked at a public library, Kathleen Horning's story time for toddlers also proved to be a moment of social research. After reading diverse books to crowds of mostly white or mostly Black children, Horning would arrange books on the floor at the toddlers' eye level and wait. The children gravitated to books with familiar characters, but time and again, she saw white parents intervene - exchanging books that featured Black characters on the cover with different books.
"The only time they didn't replace the children's choices was if they picked up a book with an animal character," said Horning, director of the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Asking a white child to identify with a Black child was just too much of a stretch but not asking them to relate to a badger." It reinforced what Horning had long believed: In books, representation matters.
The lack of diversity in children's books has been a topic of discussion for more than 50 years, but not much has changed. Writers of color, both established and new, said they continue to face inequities in the industry even as publishers have pledged to take action on diversity.
In June, largely in response to the demands of more than 1,000 publishing employees, three of the five major publishers issued statements with their intentions to diversify the workforce and publish more writers of color.
Penguin Random House announced it would expand a partnership with We Need Diverse Books - a grassroots nonprofit created in 2014 - to establish a fund to encourage the work of Black creatives. The company will also require all employees to read its bestselling book "How to Be an Antiracist," by Ibram X. Kendi.
Hachette Book Group said it plans to set goals for staff diversity and book list diversity and share that data with all employees. Two Black women were also recently hired as publishers - Dana Canedy at Simon and Schuster and Lisa Lucas for Knopf imprints Pantheon and Schocken Books.
But it will take time to see any impact, Horning said. "If three of the five big publishers really commit to doing what they say they are going to do and hire people of color and actively pursue people of color and give them good contracts and pay them ... it will be another couple of years before we see the change," she said.
Only about half of the books about Black or American Indian/First Nations people were actually written by Black or American Indian/First Nations writers, in contrast to books which the Book Center categorized as having Latinx, Asian and Asian American or Pacific Islander characters. Books about white children, talking bears, trucks, monsters, potatoes and more represent nearly three-quarters (71%) of children's and young adult books published in 2019.
From 2018 to 2019, the total number of children's books by or about African Americans increased 0.5%, said Horning, citing statistics from the Book Center. "We saw the same pattern we have seen in the past five years with a little bit of an increase but not a huge watershed moment," Horning said.
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