As of today, it's been two months since the launch of the Diverse BookFinder website. In that time we’ve achieved much—in large part thanks to all of you who’ve used the site and who’ve shared your thoughts. You’ve helped us learn and grow and more clearly define what the Diverse BookFinder is and does (critical for any young project). Given this, we wanted to share with you some of the things that have been happening over the last two months, and where we’ll be going from here.

A look back at our founding

Five years ago, when Dr. Krista Aronson and Anne Sibley O'Brien first decided to build a collection to explore representation in picture books featuring indigenous people and people of color, we never imagined the project growing to its current state. Our original intention was to share what we were learning from our research to assist librarians, teachers and parents in building more balanced bookshelves, and to make the collection available to everyone.

Two and a half years later, in May 2015, Bates College's Ladd Library installed the original circulating collection of nearly 800 books. Since then, it has grown to more than 1300 titles, with more being added all the time. Each title has been coded based on character (not story) and added to our database, which forms the primary search engine of the new Diverse BookFinder website.

At our 2015 Launch: Director Dr. Krista Aronson with baby Hope, Anne Sibley O'Brien, Gift Pola Kiti, Caroline Kern, Brenna Callahan

Sharing our data to increase accessibility

The more we discovered as we studied the growing collection, the more we realized the value of sharing our data more broadly to increase awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of the current multicultural picture book field. With funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and support from Bates College, we launched the project as an online searchable database in September 2017. Our goal is 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 is the only circulating collection of its kind. We wanted everyone who creates, shares, or conducts research on multicultural picture books to have access to the titles and our findings to date.

Since digital launch: Some amazing achievements

In the first six weeks since launching, the site received 65,200 pageviews, the second most-viewed Bates website for this timeframe.

Articles about the project and interviews with Dr. Aronson have been published online at the Huffington Post, on Quartz, Romper, Booktrib, Newsone, and the Lewiston Sun Journal, among others, drawing more people to explore our collection and our content.

The Diverse BookFinder was the featured story in the Fall issue of Bates Magazine.

We deeply appreciate all the enthusiasm and engagement with the site, in large part driven by you. Thank you for helping us get the word out about this important project.

A continuing evolution and the path ahead

We also welcome the critical feedback we received, from viewers and from members of our newly-formed Advisory Council, which is already helping us improve and refine our database and its presentation. If you have any questions or thoughts about the Diverse BookFinder and how we can improve upon it, please reach out to us here. We welcome your feedback.

To date, viewers identified some coding errors which we were able to correct within the first weeks, in some cases overnight.

Other input helped us see ways in which we had not been clear in communicating what the Diverse BookFinder is and what it isn't.

Here are some distinctions we're working on clarifying:

  • The Diverse BookFinder is not a list of recommended titles. Since our purpose is to examine representation, we intentionally aim to collect and evaluate all racially/culturally diverse picture books published or reprinted since 2002. We understand that it’s an easily missed distinction, so we will be working to make this even more clear to users. For curated lists, there are a number of great options available, including several just launched this year, and we look forward to seeing them grow in their purpose as we grow in ours. This said, user feedback has made clear the need to help users know if a title is problematic for the cultural group it depicts. We’re developing a system to help do just that and welcome reader input in creating something that will be even better. (See more on flagging problematic titles below, and in the next post.)
  • Racial/cultural representations in the Diverse BookFinder are coded by character, not by story. We draw from the narrative, illustrations, author notes, publisher information, and other online content to identify character race/culture. So a book listed under one of our racial/cultural groups means that it includes one or more characters from that group; the story may or may not be about or from that group. Clarifying this for the passive user is important, so we will be thinking through ways to do so in the future.
  • The Diverse BookFinder’s core strength and vision lies in translating social science research about the impact of various types of representation into accessible information, which has never been done before. (For example, see our School Library Journal article for a description of the significance of Cross-group books.) While curated and recommended lists are critical, the Diverse BookFinder is intentionally not that. One way we make research accessible is by sharing our live numbers so everyone can see where there are gaps in representation. Doing so allows visitors to see that, for instance, that the majority of books published featuring Brazilian characters focus on soccer. Advocates can use this information to push for more range in representation within multiple spheres—creator, publisher, and consumer. We’ll talk more about this and other research translations in future posts.

In the next several months we'll explore more of what we've learned—and details of some of the concrete changes we're making in response to those learnings—on two particular topics:

  • Identification of problematic titles. As stated above, we intentionally collect all titles, including those that include stereotypes and misinformation about the characters they depict. We are developing a method for flagging books in our collection which have been critiqued as containing harmful or inaccurate representation so any passive reader can understand the cultural context more broadly.
  • Categorization of religious and sacred stories. Native scholars have raised concerns over many years about how conventional subject heading vocabularies in cataloging practice (including Library of Congress and other systems) labels sacred stories from indigenous people as Folklore, while those from Christian traditions are labeled more specifically with “creation” or “revelation,” or even as nonfiction. This practice trivializes and demeans the significance and sacredness of Native religions and spiritual traditions.                                                                                       We thought we addressed this double standard by creating a level playing field, including religious stories from Christian and all other traditions in Folklore as well. We were wrong. We'll share our interim solution and our thoughts about where we go from here in an upcoming post.

We'll also be sharing tips for making the most of the unique features of our project and some of our history, how we got to this point, and where we hope to go next.

Please stay tuned—and continue to explore our website and share your valuable feedback, whether it's a question, an appreciation, a critique or a suggestion. (We're planning to increase the number of opportunities and means for offering input on the website.)

In all, the last two months have helped us see and understand more than ever how necessary it is for teachers, librarians and parents to have accessibility to the kind of data available in the Diverse BookFinder. We look forward to working with you, continuing to evolve it and partnering with others to take it to new heights.

Thank you!

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.

Background

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.