A new authors' alliance brings diverse and bilingual children's books to Charlotte schools
When Lawrence Gordon could not find books that featured children who looked like his kids, he decided to write one with the help of his then 10-year-old daughter, Lauren. Gordon is one of the founders of Books With Color, a Charlotte-based authors' alliance, that made its first public launch on March 27 and that is focused on increasing access to inclusive reading materials in homes and in classrooms.
According to the 2023 School Diversity Report, 75.5% of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools students identify as one or more minority races. But only 44% of children's and young adult books received by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, a book examination library in Wisconsin, had significant BIPOC representation in 2021.
“The mission of Books With Color is for all kids to see themselves in the books they read. I mean, that's the main thing of who we are,” said Gordon, who founded the nonprofit with children's advocate and entrepreneur Kristina Cruise. “There are so many authors out here that have written amazing books that are not supported … We want to encourage our young people to continue creating, continue writing, continue placing literacy as a focus. And Kristi and I felt that together we can champion that message better because it's hard to do it by yourself. It's hard to do anything by yourself.”
According to Gordon, an estimated 70 children attended the launch that was in collaboration with YWCA Central Carolinas' literacy festival. Children were able to participate in author meet and greets, read-alouds, literacy yoga, book signings, arts and crafts activities, and were also sent home with several inclusive books.
Tammy Pope, a school counselor at the Rea Farms STEAM Academy elementary school, believes more literature that represents a more diverse population in schools is needed “not only so students of color can see a representation of them but for all students to see a representation of their peers.”
“If all students are exposed to color in literature, it could possibly begin to create an environment where students respect each other's differences and could also see similarities among them,” Pope wrote in an email.
Several initiatives like Books With Color exist on a national scale contributing to a slow increase in the availability of diverse children’s books over the last few decades. But the number of children's books by and about people of color is still meager in comparison to books by and about white characters, talking bears, monsters and even potatoes.
Of all the children's books received by the CCBC in 2021, including both fiction and non-fiction, roughly 13% were about Black/African people, 10% were about Asians and only 1.9% had indigenous people or characters.
When it comes to being a main character, the numbers dwindle even more with 10.4% of the books having at least one main character who is Black/African, 8% Asian and 1.7% Indigenous. That same year, 32.9% of the books had at least one primary character who was white, while 29.3% had a main character that was an animal or object.
Lakeesha Morris, who has an 11-year-old son, Jaden, says not only are there not enough books where her son can see himself but books that depict him as a great thinker, going on an adventure or solving crime are almost nonexistent.
“There is nothing there to show the average child of color how to survive sixth grade, we always get the back story,” Morris said.
Jaden found his first superhero book called "The Supadupa Kid," where the main character was a Black elementary school child, in the summer of 2016. Jaden was already 5 years old.
“It was amazing to see that he didn't even have to be the villain in the story or the sidekick. He could actually be smart. He could be a hero. He could be a friend. It became more than just a fiction science superhero book ... because it showed him that he could be all kind of things if he puts his mind to it.”
That year, Jaden dressed up as The Supadupa Kid for literacy day at his school.
CCBC has been examining books and releasing diversity statistics since 1985. The reports’ conclusions have become redundant. “Our numbers continue to show what they have shown for the past 35 years: Despite slow progress, the number of books featuring BIPOC protagonists lags far behind the number of books with white main characters — or even those with animal or other characters,” a 2019 CCBC report reads.
Both Gordon and Dani Parker, a National Council of Teachers of English member and assistant professor of Multicultural Education at Wake Forest University, agree that the scarcity of highly circulated children’s books by and about people of color is not due to their lack of existence but rather the lack of a narrative that fosters diverse representation, educators’ support and publishing opportunities.
“It's not that people out here aren’t writing children's books, it's just that they're not getting the same voice as some of the other books,” Parker said.
That is what Gordon says they are trying to improve at Books With Color, by not only supporting BIPOC authors, but also connecting them with the children at schools through live author classroom readings.
“Our number one goal for 2023 is to show up in the communities, show up in schools like I did today at Montclaire, like we did with the YWCA literacy festival … and to let people know we're here to get books in the hands of as many kids as we possibly can and to also support as many self-published authors as we possibly can,” Gordon said.
The impact of lack of representation in children’s and young adult literature can be detrimental to academic performance. “They're going to be less likely to be reading on grade level. We know that over time, if you are not a strong reader, that you tend to fall further behind in school and have a harder time with standardized testing,” Parker said.
Courtney Saunders, a licensed mental health counselor and regional clinic director for Thriveworks in Charlotte, said that one psychological outcome for those with identities that are underrepresented is often feeling invisible.
“They feel unseen. I think they feel unheard. I think they feel like they're not validated … they feel isolated because if you go to the library and you're looking at all these books and none of the characters in the books look like you, then are you important? What your thoughts are, your feelings, your experiences? Do they matter?” Saunders explained.
On the other hand, Parker says the more kids identify with the curriculum, the more likely they are to perform better in school because “they see themselves in it and they see what’s possible.”
The general consensus on trying to solve the issue of lack of representation is more representation — that publishers, educators and communities need to come together and uplift independent writers and value having diverse characters and voices in children’s literature.
But Parker says this push cannot be toward more trauma-based stories. “It cannot only be Black History Month that’s based on protest and slavery. It has to be just everyday characters with everyday issues so that you can see yourself and be engaged.”
“I think the main thing is that diverse books help children of color, but they will help all children. Everyone needs to see a diverse representation of the societies and cities and towns that we all live in,” Parker said.