Identifying Problematic Titles

Last week we celebrated the two-month anniversary of our digital launch with an update on the feedback and responses we’ve received, and how the project will continue to evolve to better serve our readers. One of the issues we discussed was the need to help casual Diverse BookFinder users better understand some of the cultural critiques around certain titles. As promised, we’ve put together some initial thoughts on how we can do this moving forward, while staying true to the vision and unique goal we have:

To move the diverse books discussion beyond a focus simply on the lack of numbers to a much more nuanced exploration of who is represented (which racial/cultural groups) in recent American children's picture books and how (what themes predominate for each group), and what that communicates about how members of each group are perceived in contemporary America.

This post is a continuation of that discussion. We want to share our ideas about how to empower users further with our data, but simultaneously flag problematic titles. Below we discuss what we’ve learned about the topic since the website was launched, and what we’re doing in response. We welcome your thoughts and feedback as we evolve the Diverse BookFinder together.


Some basics:  

  • The Diverse BookFinder is a searchable database aimed at bringing a critical conversation to multicultural picture books.
  • We translate scholarship on representation and impact —such as research about types of book that support the formation of intercultural friendships—and apply it to books currently available, with the goal of helping practitioners create balanced, evidence based collections.

For these reasons, it is actually our intention to collect every title published or reprinted since 2002, not just the “good” ones. Including all titles allows people to discover that, for instance, the majority of books published featuring Brazilian characters focus on soccer. Writers, publishers, teachers, librarians, parents and others can use the collection to gather such evidence and to push for a broader and better range of representation – by creators, by publishers, and on bookshelves everywhere.

Since it is part of our mission to consider the impact of poor representation, this also means that we have some titles in our collection that have been identified as including inaccurate, stereotypical, disrespectful and/or harmful portrayals of marginalized groups. These problematic titles are essential to include from a research perspective, given our unique mission, but are not titles we or others would suggest as “good” representations for children.

Since our digital launch, a number of people have expressed concerns that the casual Diverse BookFinder user may, upon finding such a title in our collection, believe it to be a recommendation and acquire the book to share with children, without any critical awareness or discussion of what’s problematic.

The Challenge is Here:

  • On the one hand, we want to provide access to all titles to inform rich and realistic conversation about where we are and where we want to go.
  • On the other hand, we want to inform users about types of representation that may be harmful.
  • How can we resolve these tensions?

Discerning and indicating book quality, including authenticity in representation, is an essential part of growing the diverse books movement. And we are grateful for the ever-growing breadth of curated book lists out there, including several launched this year, to assist with identifying recommended books or why certain titles are problematic. While it’s not our intent to replicate these lists, we’re excited to see them grow and evolve, which brings us to a potential collaboration.

An Interim Solution

We’ve developed a means to flag titles that have been identified as problematic.

Our criterion for flagging a title is that it has been

  • critiqued for misrepresentation
  • in a published review (including blogs)
  • by an expert reader with a history of scholarship and/or published reviews in professional journals or personal blogposts
  • who is a member of the group represented.

We plan to, literally, flag these titles with a small red flag icon , or with a question mark in cases where expert reviewers have raised questions but not concluded that a title is definitely problematic. Each flag or question mark will link to a cultural critique(s), so users can easily explore the potentially problematic components and larger context.

An Invitation to Collaborate

We’ve developed a list of problematic titles in the current collection, based on our own research and suggestions from members of our Advisory Council and other users.

One way you can help us build the Diverse BookFinder is to share concerns about titles, in particular by drawing our attention to a critical review that we may have missed. If you notice that a problematic title has not been flagged — or, in the future, you read an excellent new critique of a book that is in our database — we invite you to help by contacting us with the name of the book and a link to the published critique. In this way, we all can help each other understand and work together to deepen the discussions surrounding (and within) representation in picture books.

Thank you for helping us achieve this much. We welcome your feedback on the above and look forward to collaborating with you to evolve this important discussion.