Library Column in the Moscow-Pullman Daily News
November 19, 2016
Reflecting on the importance of picture books
by Elaine Bayly
November is Picture Book Month, "an international literacy initiative that celebrates the print picture book," according to www.picturebookmonth.com. The month is about both appreciating picture books and reflecting on their effect.
Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden has stressed the need for diversity in picture books, stating "what's so important about kids' books - they can be windows to introduce them to the world, but they also need to see a reflection. They should be a window and a mirror."
The most recent statistics on diversity in picture books come from the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and demonstrate a lack of diversity in picture books. Of all picture books published in 2015 only 0.9 percent represented Native American/First Nation characters, 2.4 percent Latinos, 3.3 percent Asian Pacifics/Asian Pacific Americans, 7.6 percent African/African-Americans, 12.5 percent represented animals, trucks, etc., and 73.3 percent depicted white characters.
The We Need Diverse Books movement has gained momentum in the past two years. As a graduate student in cultural anthropology in 2010, my thesis topic involved researching multicultural children's literature with the premise that parents, teachers and caregivers in the U.S. utilize children's books as a child-rearing tool to teach children about the world they live in; this in turn affects children's racial attitudes from an early age. If children of color are mainly exposed to picture books featuring white characters, what does this tell them about our society, and vice versa, if white children are mainly exposed to their own race depicted in books, how can they see the lives of their fellow children in our country? The country's racial demographics are becoming more and more diverse. In 2010 the majority (50.1 percent) of children three years of age and younger were non-white.
Unequal representation in picture books does not end with race; likewise, there exists a disparity in gender representation in children's books, even when the characters are not human. A 2011 Florida State University study found 7.5 percent of 6,000 picture books published between 1900 and 2000 had female animal protagonists, while male animals were the main characters in more than 23 percent of picture books each year. In that 100-year period, there was never a year where more than 33 percent of children's books featured a female animal character, but male animals appeared in 100 percent of the books. Furthermore, when a gender was not specified for a character, the researchers found parents would typically refer to the animal as male when reading to their child.
Evidence would suggest gender disparity in children's books has real-life implications. Past research by J.M. Ochman discovered children who read books containing the same-sex protagonist as the reader showed increased measures in self-esteem. Ochman concluded because storybooks can positively affect children's self-esteem, it is important for both boys and girls to have equal access to strong female and male main characters.
I believe libraries and the books to which our children have access is key to remedy our misunderstanding of different groups in our country and foster empathy for all. Picture books play a key role for how our children view the world they live in and it's important that picture books reflect the world we live in. Picture books should be a window to view the world and a mirror for all children to recognize their presence and belonging in our country.
Elaine Bayly has worked in the Access Services department of the Latah County Library since 2011 and also serves as the marketing specialist for the library.
October 28, 2016