Honestly, we never set out to do this.
It started with Krista’s 2010 research on Cross-Group books. I was invited in as a community advisor, with author Margy Burns Knight, to create the titles for the study.
Krista’s and my next step was offering workshops, “Books as Bridges,” for educators and parents on how children develop race awareness and how books can be catalysts for conversations on race. We suggested a scaffolding of 3 categories:
- Celebration of Differences: Introduce very young children to the concept of race.
- Cross-Group: Build awareness of stories of friendships across race.
- Race & Racism: Share content about injustice to older children on the foundation of the first two categories.
One day in 2013 or so, Krista said, “I wonder what other categories are out there in picture books featuring people of color? Let’s collect some books and see what we find.”
If anyone had told us that within six years we’d have...
- a collection of nearly 3000 titles housed at Bates’ Ladd Library and coded for categories, characters’ race/culture, and other content,
- a template of nine categories that has been refined over the years but continues to effectively capture the messages conveyed in picture books depicting Black and Indigenous people and People of Color (BIPOC),
- a sustaining 3-year grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences,
- a team of committed people including a full-time Project Coordinator and an Advisory Council,
- a website with a searchable database of the entire collection,
- a monthly newsletter with over 400 subscribers (and growing!),
- and a strong social media presence on Instagram and Facebook,
...we wouldn’t have believed it possible.
We’re still astonished by all of it.
As our ideas about what we’re doing -- and why -- crystalize and evolve, we took time to reflect and capture our current thinking.
From the beginning, our approach has been unusual: a marriage between children’s literature and social science. We hope to contribute to the diverse books discussion by exploring representation in a way no one else is doing, by examining not just who is represented but how, and what messages these send to young readers. We use social science research techniques to create new knowledge, and we translate social science research so that it is accessible and useful.
Data is something that’s been sorely missing in the conversation about children’s literature. The only measures we’ve had to build towards a future in which our books more fully represent our children have been the number of books about and/or by BIPOC.
In addition to keeping track of the number of BIPOC characters present in picture books, we track how BIPOC characters are represented, providing real time data that can reveal gaps -- pushing us to reflect on whether we are capturing a full humanity through the windows, mirrors, and prisms we offer our children.
We also translate research about how children see race/culture and findings about the impact of various messages (celebrating culture, surviving oppression, interacting across race, etc.), which can help all of us — librarians, educators, parents, publishers, creators, booksellers — consider what kinds of books are most essential to make and share with children.
Recently we’ve realized that our project does something else unique too. The important discussion about representation within the diverse books movement is typically centered around:
- a broad focus on “diverse” vs. “non-diverse” books -- which compares books featuring BIPOC to those featuring white characters (or animals, in the case of picture books) -- to highlight disparities.
- a specific focus on “good” vs. “bad” books -- which reviews diverse books for authentic vs. problematic (offensive or stereotypical) representations of BIPOC.
While comparing books featuring BIPOC to those with white (or animal) characters reveals important disparities about who is missing, it can also reinforce Whiteness as the industry standard. And while careful review of some diverse books can provide necessary critical education for readers, it cannot identify trends in representations of BIPOC without broader data focused only on ALL diverse books.
Our unique focus on collecting and analyzing ALL current picture books featuring BIPOC characters allows us to consider diverse books in relation to each other and identify representation trends within the world of "diverse books" itself. We’ve revised our mission page so as to be consistent with these evolving realizations. Take a look and let us know what you think.