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The Faces in the Picture Books

Try mentioning the phrase multicultural literature to teachers, librarians, editors, or writers these days. A fair number of them will sigh, and you may even notice their eyes rolling back in their heads. “Oh, no,” you can hear them thinking, “not that again.” We know it’s a topic of great importance, and we’re sick to death of it.

Yet we all want to offer the right book to each child who comes through our doors (whether school or library or bookstore), and for many of us around the country, that has become harder. The population of the United States is changing in an unprecedented fashion, and a tremendous wave of immigrants streams through our doors. Many of these new citizens use libraries, but what do they find when they get there? Books about white children.

Upon returning to public-library work last year, I was startled to realize that my library’s community, the suburb I had thought of as “white bread,” had become nine-grain bread at least. The school my children attend in the city is populated with children such as Sergut (who is Ethiopian), Aleena (Indian), Svein (Swedish), Sydney (half white, half black), Steven (half Jewish, half Filipino). Mixed in with the little Caitlins and Alexanders are the Ahmeds, Zaeems, and everything in between. Comments from relatives around the country, writing from small towns in Indiana and North Carolina about their pupils and their diversity, reflected the same shifts in population, by no means restricted to the big urban areas.

In fact, the 1990s have produced a large increase in the number of new immigrants to the United States. The census web page ( shows that almost one-third of the total foreign-born population entered the United States between 1990 and March of 1997. This, of course, doesn’t include the children born since their parents came to the U.S., many of whom are beginning to turn up in our libraries looking for books.

What do they find when they get there? I decided to see if the faces in recent picture books reflected the faces coming into the children’s department. For my informal survey, I sought out all of the picture books reviewed in four major reviewing journals in March and September of 1997 (since publishing generally falls into two seasons, fall and spring). Because the journals review at varying speeds, I would then see a significant percentage of the picture books published in 1997 that were deemed worthy of purchase. The four journals I used were Booklist (3/1/97; 3/15/97; 9/1/97; 9/15/97), Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books (3/97; 9/97), The Horn Book Magazine (3/97; 9/97), and School Library Journal (3/97; 9/97).

Any book that was either nonfiction or really fiction for older readers published in a picture-book format was eliminated from consideration. That left 268 picture books, 216 of which I was able to obtain. (Several of the books that proved hard to find got poor reviews, while a few others were board books.) In eighty-six of the 216 picture books, every single character was white. Every one. Their skin was pink, and very often their hair was blond. In some instances, using white characters made perfect sense, usually because of the setting in time or place — such as Deborah Hopkinson’s Birdie’s Lighthouse, where an African-American or Asian character would have been inappropriate. Other stories focused very tightly on one or two characters, or on a family. In many cases, these could just as easily have been pictured as another ethnic group, but the artist chose to depict the characters as white. In fact, in Shirley Neitzel’s book We’re Making Breakfast for Mother, the family depicted throughout the book is white, but the back of the jacket shows an African-American child wearing a chef’s hat, inviting a reader to remember that the same story could have been told using her family instead.

An additional thirty books featured white adults or children as their main characters but at some point during the story showed someone of another race or ethnic group. For instance, Paul Brett Johnson’s Farmer’s Market tells about a white farming family, but people of other races are shown shopping at the farmer’s market. Patricia Lee Gauch’s book Christina Katerina and Fats and the Great Neighborhood War points up a typical configuration in picture books: the three main characters are white, but all of the secondary characters are ethnic, with one Asian girl, one African-American girl, one African-American boy, and one perhaps Hispanic girl. Tellingly, main characters in picture books are usually white; second bananas, it seems, can be any color.

So, 116 of the 216 books were about white people. That left one hundred books that had the potential to be about other people. However, as we all know, many artists avoid the race/ethnicity question altogether by making their characters animals. Although the wildly popular Arthur books seem to be about humans at school, at home, and at play, Arthur is, of course, an aardvark (at least he started out that way; he has since mutated into some generic sort of animal). And all children, regardless of race, can relate to Arthur and his friends and family, because ironically, those animals are universally human characters. A surprising number of animal books are less universal — Dav Pilkey’s bunnies and Holly Keller’s pigs, for example, are the pinky white shade of Caucasian flesh, and they live in such middle-class settings that they leave a strong impression of being white. Altogether, forty-two of the remaining one hundred books featured animals, and one more, Lois Ehlert’s Hands, had no visual representation of either people or animals.

Fifty-seven books remained. Eighteen of those were books about a non-white person or persons, with a specific location or theme mandating race. Since Kwanzaa is a holiday celebrating an African-American tradition, Juwanda G. Ford’s K Is for Kwanzaa must of necessity depict black people. A story set in Mexico (Pedrito’s Day by Luis Garay) of course shows Mexicans, and Palampam Day by David Gershator has a Caribbean setting. These books fit the most typical sort of multicultural literature, and certainly have an important place in picture books.

Twenty-one picture books showed the world as it is increasingly becoming: diverse. (Three of these were written by Eve Bunting, an author who carefully gives some of her characters ethnic names to avoid an all-white book when it reaches the hands of the illustrator.) Looking at these twenty-one titles, you can come up with two general rules that publishers seem to follow. Rule #1: Classrooms must be shown as diverse. There will be quite a few white children and at least one child from each of the main racial groups, Asian, African American, and Hispanic, and, less frequently, Native American.

Rule #2: Only cities, preferably New York City, can be depicted as diverse. New Yorkers seem fond of the expression “only in New York,” so perhaps the New York publishing houses perceive the rest of the country as “white bread,” just as I had initially perceived my library’s community to be lacking variety. In any case, it’s the urban books that show a broad mix of people living side by side, as in Mama Provi and the Pot of Rice by Sylvia Rosa-Casanova, where Puerto Rican Mrs. Provi trades rice for parts of a meal from neighbors with names like Rivera, Bazzini, Woo, and the African-American Mrs. Johnson. Likewise, Roni Schotter’s Nothing Ever Happens on 90th Street is populated with all sorts of people with names like Chang, Friedmann, and Martinez. This celebration of diversity is delightful, except that it leaves children with the impression that multiethnic communities are only to be found in brownstones and skyscrapers. It also segregates these ethnic names into books that are only about celebrating diversity, never books that tell interesting stories with characters whose names happen to be Chang, Friedmann, and Martinez.

The “diverse” category also includes the books where racial relations are at least partly the point of the story. One example would be Jane Yolen’s touching When Miz Berlin Walks, about a friendship between an African-American girl and an elderly white woman. Another is David Birchman’s A Green Horn Blowing, where a black man teaches a white boy to play the horn.

Not only were African Americans featured as the main characters in amazingly few of the books (only seven of the 216) but the themes of these books set them apart. They weren’t stories about typical childhood concerns — not wanting to go to bed, or growing something in a garden, or waiting for Christmas to come, as in the stories featuring white children. These address seriously weighty subjects. In Vashanti Rahaman’s Read for Me, Mama, Joseph gradually comes to realize that the reason his mother refuses to read the books that the school librarian has assigned is that she doesn’t know how. Staying Cool by Nancy Antle depicts a boy who learns that he can’t hope to win in the boxing ring if he gets angry and loses his self-control. In Because You’re Lucky, by Irene Smalls, Jonathan bitterly resents the intrusion of a foster child into his family. Eloise Greenfield in For the Love of the Game: Michael Jordan and Me exhorts young readers to find their path and live up to their potential.

Each of these books is well done (another in the group, Walter Dean Myers’s Harlem, won several awards, including a Caldecott honor medal), but why must the only books with African-American characters be so heavy? The Nielsen ratings for television programming show that African Americans tend to watch shows featuring black performers, and they generally ignore some of the most popular shows followed by the white population. (The reverse is also true.) It’s disturbing to think that if the same pattern holds true with picture books, African-American children get to see themselves as people with heavy problems and big responsibilities. While seven books is far too small a sampling to make any broad generalizations, still, we must begin to wonder whether the roots of this phenomenon lie with the writers, or if this is the only type of book that minority authors and illustrators are able to sell to publishers.

The final eleven books of the 216 fell into the category I expect to see growing as picture books catch up to the realities of our population. In these books, it’s hard to say what race or ethnic group is represented. Skin tones run from tan to brown, hair is dark and often curly, but what specific race are the characters? The little girl in Vera Williams’s Lucky Song might be Hispanic, or she might be Jewish, or biracial, or any of a number of possibilities. The child in Barbara Helen Berger’s A Lot of Otters is probably Asian, but Native American or Hispanic children could see themselves as well.

These 216 books represent a fair number of the picture books purchased by libraries in 1997, and, clearly, the pickings were slim for librarians wanting to expand their picture book holdings beyond the fair-skinned characters. The diverse communities we live in today are rarely represented, and the ethnic groups melding into our communities are rarely seen. How many of us have young Indian or Pakistani clients we would like to serve well? Folktales can help fill the gap, but our Indian patrons know that they don’t live in communities with elephants, and that magical events rarely occur in their everyday lives. Like all children, these children want to see themselves, and they want to see something that reminds them of their own lives, at least occasionally. We don’t have much to offer them yet.

In 1997, Caldecott Award-winning artist Trina Schart Hyman came out with a picture book that stands alone in its treatment of the characters in a story. She illustrated Howard Pyle’s original story Bearskin, giving this American tale a cast of characters that embody our melting-pot population. In Hyman’s hands, with her remarkable ability to portray people by capturing their individuality and finding the particular beauty in each person, Bearskin is a tour de force.

The main character, Bearskin, is a dramatically handsome young Asian man, while the princess whom he saves from a three-headed dragon is a regally lovely African-American woman. Since each face in the book is so distinct and specific, Hyman could probably tell us which particular ethnic group she is representing with each character. For the casual reader, though, it’s enough to know that the people look like ourselves and our neighbors, and that this fanciful world, with its dragons and its rip-roaring story, has not been reserved solely for white people.

Whether we perceive Hyman’s artwork to be touchingly inclusive, or slyly subversive, or both, it clearly comes from her unique perspective. It satisfies because it is her own artistic expression. The last thing we want is for the illustrator’s work to be dictated from on high. Indeed, out of the entire 116 picture books featuring white people, the artist’s choice can be and must be defended on an individual basis. Each artist has the right to portray characters as he or she sees them. When editors start issuing orders for including a multiethnic group of characters, books become laughably artificial, as in the Chicken Soup for Little Souls series. They look as if they are drawn from a menu: select one item from each category.

Many of the librarians and reviewers I spoke with while preparing this piece expressed surprise: they see so many books with nonwhite characters that they feel the other races and ethnicities are now fully integrated into the books. Reviewers now, if they note race at all, will make slightly disparaging comments about a “p.c.” cast of characters. Meanwhile, in the libraries, our children — African-American, Indian, Saudi Arabian, Filipino, and innumerable others — look for books about someone like them. But they are looking in libraries with picture-book collections, lovingly gathered for the past fifty years, that feature white children. We need to let publishers know that we want to purchase for our libraries high-quality literature showing a variety of people in a variety of stories. We aren’t ready to be color-blind yet: when it comes to picture books, some affirmative action is necessary.

From the March/April 1999 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Susan Dove Lempke About Susan Dove Lempke

Susan Dove Lempke is a Horn Book reviewer and director of the Niles Public Library District in Illinois.

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