In honor of children and children’s literature, buy a children’s book for someone you know, or spend some time reading with youth. Please remember to select books that are 1) of only the highest literary and visual quality (the rarest kind of best!) and 2) culturally conscious. You can do so by thinking about the following guidelines, based on the landmark article “Ten Quick Ways to Analyze Children’s Books for Racism and Sexism,” published by the Council on Interracial Books for Children.
1. Check the illustrations. Do pictures of black children look like Sambo? Do pictures of Asians and Asian Americans have slanted eyes and rice bowl haircuts? Are girls dressed asnurses and boys dressed as doctors?
2. Check the storyline. What does it mean to be successful? Does it require complete assimilation and giving up ethnic roots? Are ethnic children proactive problem-solvers or do white children solve problems for them?
3. Look at the lifestyles. Are ethnic families consistently portrayed as different from the majority white mainstream middle class and in need of “Americanization”? Are their homes located in urban ghettoes or rural farms, or is there a range of experiences and lifestyles?
4. Weigh the relationships between people. Are whites always in positions of power compared to ethnic characters? Are Asian women portrayed as submissive? Do Latino/a families have a lot of children? Are black mothers portrayed as dominating in their families?
5. Note the heroes. What does it take to be heroic? Do minority characters take risks against majority institutions or do they passively accept their issues and wait for problems to go away?
6. Consider the effect on a child’s self image. Is whiteness portrayed as normal, angelic, pure, etc., and blackness always associated with evil, dirty, ghetto, etc.? Are males always portrayed doing heroic deeds and rescuing females?
7. Consider the author’s and/or illustrator’s background. What qualifies the author to write about or include ethnic characters? Has the illustrator done justice in capturing the essence of ethnic cultures in the pictures?
8. Check out the author’s perspective. Is the author a feminist or does s/he submit to patriarcal ideologies? Is the author’s perspective mainly informed by Eurocentric ideologies?
9. Watch for loaded words. Are the words “submissive” “quiet” “smart” “docile” “crafty” always used to describe Asians? Are blacks “athletic” “musical” “primitive” “savage”? Are male pronouns used when referring to both females and males?
10. Check out the copyright date. Books published prior to the 1960s tend to contain more racist and derogatory images and stereotypes than those produced in the 1970s and onward. That’s not to say that current books don’t have problems. Thus, please observe the first 9 guidelines.
Why does this matter? Children’s literature scholar Rudine Sims Bishop says “The literature we choose helps to socialize our children and to transmit to them our values.” She also contends that “children need literature that serves as a window onto lives and experiences different from their own, and literature that serves as a mirror reflecting themselves and their cultural values, attitudes and behaviors.”
When celebrating children’s book week, let’s help each other and young people think critically about the subtle and overt messages embedded in our literatures, attitudes, and actions.
A great way to start is by looking at issues in thanksgiving stories. Professor Debbie Reese’s blog on American Indians in Children’s Literature is a phenomenal resource.