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Stories are a big part of childhood. Regardless of how they’re told—by others or between the pages of books—so many of them stay with us even as we grow up. We search constantly to find ourselves within these stories; for today’s children, it’s no different, especially as they grow up in an increasingly multicultural society. And when a children’s book is brought to life through illustrations, it becomes real—immortalized as it is presented through the eyes of another. But the question remains: How accurate are these lenses?

The Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Education revealed recently that in 2016, 12 percent of 3,400 children’s books were written or illustrated by people of color, and 22 percent were about people of color. Two decades ago, the latter stood at just 9 percent. As progress toward diversity in children’s literature slowly, but surely gains momentum, I reached out to five illustrators to hear their thoughts about inclusion, diversity and their experiences working as people of color in the US children’s book market.

A spread from illustrator and author Juana Martinez-Neal’s Alma and How She Got Her Name (left), a children’s book that prominently features Latinx Americans. Authors Rose Blue and Corinne J. Naden’s book Ron’s Big Mission (right), with illustrations by Don Tate, tells the true story of US physicist and astronaut Ron McNair, who refused to leave a segregated library until he was permitted to check out books.

How has your childhood influenced your work in children’s literature?

Author, illustrator, Texas: I grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, where my aunt, Eleanora E. Tate, worked as one of the first black journalists at the Des Moines Register newspaper. She later moved to the South, where she wrote novels for eight-to-twelve year olds featuring black characters. One of her books was even made into a movie. It was important that I saw my aunt excel in her work as a writer—it allowed me to dream big and to see myself someday as a book creator.

Author, illustrator, Arizona: Growing up in Latin America gives you a different perspective of the world. Peru is such a beautiful country, with thousands of years of history. It is also a place where the unimaginable can and will happen.

Author, illustrator, North Carolina: I was born in 1963 during the Civil Rights Movement. People of color weren’t seen very much, and when we were, it was usually in a negative light. This affected me; I began to believe I was invisible. Television screens, movies and covers of books were filled with people who were white, blue-eyed [and had] blond hair.

One day in school, my teacher, Ms. Russell, shared with me a book: The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats. That book was one of the first
children’s books that had a black child as its protagonist. It was a simple story about a boy having a wonderful day in the snow—like every other child. The publishers wanted to know if Keats was trying to make a statement, but he stated, “I simply put Peter there because he should have been there all along.”

How does having more people of color in children’s books shape the way kids—and adults—see the world?

Tate: [When I was] a child, there weren’t many black people featured on television, as leads in movies or in books. It sends a message that black people are not important. I remember reading about Dick and Jane at school and wondering, ‘Where are all the people that look like me?’ It’s likely one reason I was so shy.

Illustrator, Massachusetts: It helps give children empathy and a view of the world that they might not otherwise have. It also gives children of color the power to be comfortable in their own skin and the feeling that they belong. Growing up, I didn’t get to read stories validating my experience; maybe that’s why I was always drawn to stories with animal characters more than stories with human characters.

Two illustrations by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, an illustrator based in North Carolina. In her work for children’s books, Brantley-Newton encourages publishers to feature children of various backgrounds and ethnicities in order to actively reflect the United States’ multicultural population.

Awareness about diversity and inclusion are on the rise in the publishing industry. Has this awareness seeped into work created for children’s literature? 

Tate: Lately, while I’ve noticed more books featuring black characters, black people are not the creators. The key to inspiring future illustrators of color is for them to see and know that getting published is a possibility for them.

Illustrator, Rhode Island: Book creators are definitely more aware; however, not all seem to welcome it. On Facebook and at children’s literature conferences in the last nine months, I’ve seen emboldened creators be openly resentful toward diversity efforts like #OwnVoices and #WeNeedDiverseBooks, claiming “censorship” of their ideas or “reverse racism” simply because they aren’t being granted immediate access to the stories of marginalized people by default anymore.

Brantley-Newton: We send the wrong message when we exclude children in a story. Kids need to know that they are wanted and included and that they can be the star or a part of the storied community. So now, more publishers are asking for these stories. Some agents are now requiring illustrators to know how to illustrate children of color, from skin to lips to eyes to noses. Not all Asian girls and boys have slanted eyes. Not every African American girl has Afro puffs.

Martinez-Neal: We need characters that show us different cultures and realities because that is how we can see and understand other people from this world who live lives completely different than ours. We don’t need all authors—both writers and illustrators—to try to create diverse books. We need voices writing about their own experiences.

With the obvious demand for more diversity in children’s books, why does the industry keep falling back on homogeneous themes with lead characters that are almost exclusively white and experiences and stories that seem bland and generic?

Ho: There are tried-and-true themes that will always sell. Parents, librarians and teachers need to buy children’s books featuring diverse experiences and characters to show publishers that they are in high demand. Consumers have a big voice.

Rodriguez: There are certainly universal experiences, narratives and tropes that can be seen across the children’s book market, and I think that’s because we are all human and similar in many ways. To sow new thematic ground, though, we need to broaden our creator and readership base: seek out, support and share the work of underrepresented writers and artists. The talent is out there; it just needs nurturing.

Carnival (left), by illustrator Jannie Ho, stars anthropomorphic animals; as a child, Ho was drawn to stories featuring animal characters more than ones that did not reflect her experience. On the right, an illustration by Christina Rodriguez for author Ada González’s bilingual children’s book, Mayte and the Bogeyman/Mayte y el cuco

Have you been approached to create books that feature people of color or have you pitched the idea to others? 

Tate: I’ve been pitched ideas to write about, most of them on slavery. Stories about enslaved African Americans who overcame great obstacles need to be preserved and passed down—and I will gladly continue to tell those stories—but I don’t want to be boxed in.

Rodriguez: I consider myself fortunate that close to half of the books I’ve illustrated have featured diverse characters. In most cases, I was granted a lot of artistic freedom to interpret the characters as I wish in my illustrations—most of them based on friends and family—and my publishers have always welcomed my ideas.

Brantley-Newton: When I pitch my books, I often tell publishers that I want it to feature not just African American people, but all people. Most of my books are multicultural in some way. I have friends of all colors, and they make for great stories and characters! But every editor and publisher is different. Most of them have embraced the need for diversity and do everything they can to make sure that diverse stories are told and shared. Some are still struggling to get it right, while others think that if we just show a little Asian or black child in the background, we’ve made a diverse book.

Martinez-Neal: My debut picture book as a writer and illustrator, Alma and How She Got Her Name (Candlewick Press, April 2018), is about having a name that you don’t feel fits you. It is intended to feel like a Latino story because it is about my family, and I am from Peru. I made a book about a personal experience—about what I knew.

What are the challenges you’ve faced when it comes to creating work about people of color for the children’s book market? 

Ho: I feel very obligated to share stories reflecting my background and point of view, but it can be challenging, since I prefer to draw animals for my personal work and the stories I write. I do draw people—and when I do, I certainly draw people of color—but it’s a little harder to tackle subjects that talk about people of color with characters that are animal based. I am working on stories that deal with diverse themes, and hopefully it will still come across in my unique way.

Brantley-Newton: I still find that it can be very one-sided. Writers can often write about a child of color, but when a person of color wants to write about a white person, it is not very well received. What we all need is the ability to tell our stories and have them heard. I want all people to be able to share their stories and be heard, and now is the time to do it across the board.

What can we do to have more diversity, inclusion and representation in children’s books? 

Ho: I’m the mother of a young multiracial child, so I would love for more books out there to reflect the multiracial and multicultural aspects of our world. As a creator who is Asian American, I’m especially interested in the nuances of our experience. There are many books teaching readers about Asian culture and/or featuring Asians in Asia, but very few that address the Asian American experience.

Rodriguez: I believe the bulk of this effort falls on the gatekeepers: agents could represent book creators whose voices reflect the readers; editors, art directors and publishers could produce and endorse underrepresented book creators and thoughtfully reflect on critiques by diverse bloggers and reviewers; and conference organizers could advocate for equity in writing and art programs, speaking opportunities, and mentorships for underrepresented creators.

Tate: Publishers publish books to make money—it’s a business. I vote with my dollars by purchasing as many diverse books as I can. ca

In 2008, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia–based Amy Ng founded Pikaland, an online resource for freelance illustrators that sparks thoughts on creativity, illustration and entrepreneurship.


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