Literary Hub

Stop Dismissing Inclusive Children’s Books as ‘Too Political’

In a recent article for The Atlantic, Joe Pinsker reports on a recent trend of “woke” picture books, citing sources at Publisher’s Weekly and Barnes & Noble on the popularity of children’s books with a progressive message. Eventually, the piece concludes, “Buying woke picture books may be a popular political statement for some parents, but it seems plenty of households don’t have any use for them.”

While some of these books are undoubtedly left-leaning (John Oliver’s Mike Pence-baiting bunny book springs to mind), Pinsker’s statement itself sweeps many disparate topics and viewpoints under the “political” umbrella, thereby dismissing them and continuing a long history of silencing the narratives of people of color, women, queer people, and other marginalized groups.

For decades, many of these stories have been relegated to the “special interest” shelf, signaling to children that these narratives only need to be read by certain people—that they are not required reading, not worthy of the canon, too narrow to be universal. But if scholars and booksellers yield to the idea that representing all people makes books more leftist, or inherently political, they close the doors on these narratives and their importance. Proclaiming them to be of little use to “plenty” of families tells the children who see themselves represented that they, too, are of little use to most people.

In my eight years as a middle and high school librarian, I have been faced with the question of representation again and again. Collections of rarely-read fiction—the traditional Western canon—were viewed by students who looked nothing like the authors. When a young, queer black student requested poetry, I found myself ordering Audre Lorde and Claudia Rankine to sit side by side on the shelf with Keats and cummings. We Should All Be Feminists was added after an in-service program about the dangers of the single story, as told by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie. For some students, these were volumes that provided a window into the lives of others, so crucial for fostering empathy and understanding, and for others, they were a reflection of their lived experience that hadn’t previously been available to them.

Initially, this was easier to do with non-fiction. It was easier to make a case to administrators for an inclusive array of materials to support a history teacher’s project on the March on Washington, for example, to portray the world that the students live in. But nonfiction, for all its merits, is not where students necessarily learn the most. A 2013 study from the New School found that reading literary fiction improved tests of empathy in its readers. It is not good enough to put a historical account of the civil rights movement on the shelf and call it representation. To truly inspire young people to see beyond their own experiences, sometimes only fiction can do the trick. The nonfiction about current issues doesn’t seem to move much anyway, whereas I find myself buying multiple copies of The Hate U Give to keep up with the demand from students.

It is not good enough to put a historical account of the civil rights movement on the shelf and call it representation.

This is a phenomenon more universal than any single librarian’s observation, with organizations like We Need Diverse Books having actively championed inclusive narratives for years, and the reverberations of that work is felt at a micro level. The National Book Awards just honored The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, an own-voices novel about the Afro-Caribbean experience. In 2017, March: Book Three, a graphic novel detailing John Lewis’s experience with the civil rights movement won several American Library Association awards, and the 2018 honorees for these awards reflected the experiences of people of color as well as members of the LBGTQ+ community. These awards have a direct impact on what materials are made available to students—an award sticker on the cover of a book makes it much more likely to be purchased by a librarian, and therefore more likely to end up in the hands of a reader. Even librarians who pay less attention to inclusion in their collections end up buying more representative materials by virtue of their award-winning status.

In the Western world, prior to the 18th century, children’s literature did not exist as its own genre. The Bible stood in for children’s adventure stories before the Puritans and Victorians saw the opportunity for teaching their young people under the guise of story. Even then, books and reading were seen as a white upper- and middle-class pursuit, as laws forbade enslaved people from reading and the ruling classes excluded other people of color from literacy. The literature that children received was their first instruction in who society deemed worthy of educating and of hearing about.

Now, as society and families grow more secular, perhaps children’s books are standing in for the religious texts of the past. A 2015 Pew Research Center study revealed the declining religiosity of Americans, young people in particular. Without using the Bible for bedtime stories, we are forced to reckon with other ways to teach our children about morality, and parents may see an opportunity to add their own instruction by picking out the Little Feminists board book set in lieu of Hop on Pop. We are only given so many opportunities to show our children both the lives of others as well as the kindest way to live their own. If that message gets neglected at other times, it makes sense to convey it as the last words before their head hits the pillow at night.

Every year the Cooperative Children’s Book Center releases statistics on diversity in children’s books, and the statistics, while improving, remain grim. For all the focus paid to progressive books in the Atlantic piece, and in society at large, the world of kidlit is still overwhelmingly white, and most voices children hear are still white, able-bodied, and members of the upper-middle class. The picture is especially grim for Native authors and books, a topic that Dr. Debbie Reese often takes on for her blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature.

But for every book by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Audre Lorde on our shelves, there are certainly lesser-known voices I and other librarians are missing. While I do my best with what publishing has to offer, I have begun to think more purposefully about the young voices, the ones I work with every day. I want to foster the viewpoints that may be less common in the schools where I work and make it clear that this writing is crucial in students’ teenage years. The writers of the future work among us already, toiling in ad hoc critique groups, honing their skills on essays that they take more seriously than their peers.

On the personal side, I’ve begun to take notice of the issues I see in the high school at a much more nascent level. After I had a son, I began taking him to our local library, where I choose books with female protagonists and kids of color, and we read about holiday traditions that don’t look anything like our own. My choices for my son matter, on a micro level, especially in the absence of a guiding religious moral philosophy. And my work with teenagers, the small avenues of change and help I’ve found—that matters too. All I can do is encourage their voices to be heard and show them the path that others have taken, to write, publish, and tell the stories that deserve to be told.

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