Skip to content

The Representation of Language & Cultural Identity in U.S. Picture Books, A Series (3)

Intro to the Series

We are so excited to bring attention to this blog series written by students in Dr. Margaret Boyle's "Teaching Languages and Culture" course at Bowdoin College. The series highlights the Diverse BookFinder (DBF), not only as a great tool for educators, librarians, and parents, but as an invaluable space where new and important inquiries about racial and cultural representation in children's books can be asked, investigated, and shared. As a comprehensive and continually growing digital collection -- painstakingly coded by a team of trained undergraduate students and graduate interns -- the DBF is a rich resource for both public scholarship and academic research & teaching. This series offers multiple exciting examples of the kinds of important inquiries that can arise when mining the DBF's publicly-accessible data. These range from explorations of picture book portrayals of diverse Japanese identities, to the importance of books in translation in the development and celebration of non-Anglophone identities and cultures, to a critical investigation of how to read "activism" in books for younger children. ~ Dr. Andrea Breau is a feminist youth studies scholar who received her Ph.D. in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from The Ohio State University in 2018. She served as Project Coordinator for the Diverse BookFinder from 2018 - 2020 and now sits on our Advisory Council.

The Depths of the Francophone World

By Roshaun Christopher

Roshaun is a student at Bowdoin College who was a Fall 2020 volunteer at Kate Furbish Elementary with the Multilingual Mainers program.

Belgium, Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Canada, Chad, the Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, France, Haiti, Luxembourg, Madagascar, Mali, Monaco, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Seychelles, Switzerland, Togo, and Vanuatu. 

What do these 29 vastly different countries have in commonality with one another? The beautiful language of French. Behind only that of English, French holds the largest number of countries to have it as an official language. Spanning geographic regions across five continents, the total number of French speakers eclipses 300 million. Within the 300 million are not only native speakers, but also partial speakers and speakers of numerous French dialects and creoles. Through colonization and diaspora, French is the sixth most-widely spoken language in the world, following Mandarin Chinese, English, Hindi, Spanish and Arabic.

Ethnic identity in France

Following the events of World War II, France’s non-white population has been increasing incrementally after the initial tidal wave of immigrants looking for employment during the ‘40s-‘70s. Determining France’s exact racial demographics is quite difficult due to a law passed in 1872 prohibiting the French Republic from performing a census that made a distinction between its citizens regarding their race or their beliefs. Fortunately, a loophole in this law exists allowing surveys and polls to be conducted to elicit this information. According to the 2009 estimates produced by marketing company Solis, France’s non-European ethnic composition was the following: 3.26 million North Africans/Maghrebis (5.23%), 1.83 million Black people (2.94%) (1.08 million Sub-Saharan Africans and 757,000 French from French West Indies), and 250,000 Turkish (0.71%).

2004 data

Contrary to other developed, global powerhouses such as the United States and Britain, France insists on not relinquishing its staunch stance on “color-blind” public policy. This means that it targets virtually no policies directly at racial or ethnic groups. Instead, it uses geographic or class criteria to address issues of social inequalities. However, this modus operandi towards resolving racial injustices is in need of refinement. As reported by the president of the National Observatory of Islamophobia, Islamophobic attacks in France rose by 54% in 2019. Hostile attitudes towards immigrants of Maghrebian descent stem from dehumanizing Orientalist stereotypes. Pertaining to connotations surrounding the word ‘Oriental’, Professor Leland Ware writes in his piece, “Color-blind Racism in France: Bias Against Ethnic Minority Immigrants,” “It essentializes a prototypical Oriental as one who is biologically inferior, exotic, and culturally backward”. This systemic indoctrination, fueled by early 19th-century propaganda depicting the East as lands of backwardness, lawlessness, and barbarism, has profoundly affected modern racism in France.

Racial injustice and discrimination are unfortunate experiences shared amongst all minority groups. In January of 2007, it was reported that over half of France’s population of Caribbean or African heritage suffer from discrimination. According to a New York Times article on discrimination in France, "The pollster TNS-Sofres said 56 percent of France's estimated 2 million black adults said they suffered from discrimination, with 37 percent saying the situation had become worse in the past 12 months." The Council Representing Black Associations (Conseil Representatif des Associations Noires, aka CRAN), works to amend issues concerning discrimination against and the enfranchisement of black citizens of France.  As previously stated, it is illegal in France to collect data based on religion, ethnic origin, or race. The overview of CRAN touches on why this piece of legislature is so problematic:

... there are no effective tools to measure discrimination and to compare them from one year to the next.  France doesn’t have reliable national statistics allowing for a precise measurement of discrimination and monitoring of anti-discriminatory policies. This is a serious problem preventing France from developing an effective fight against racial discrimination.  In the absence of data, ‘color blindness’ France is also blind to the impact of color, even if it undermines the essential French ideal of equality. In fact, we don’t even have any reliable statistics in our country concerning the number of black citizens!

They go on further to discuss the racial disparity and lack of diversity amongst different positions in society:

Based on data from immigration waves, researchers have come to say there may be 3 to 5 million blacks in France.  But there are no black ministers (cabinet officials); no black ambassadors; no black senators out of 305; one black member of parliament out of 555; no black CEO’s among the top 100 companies; no black senior military officers among the top 100 executives, etc. 3 to 5 million and still socially invisible in the homeland of human rights.

The reality of the situation is the following: if you’re black or of African descent living in France, you are invisible, and will be treated as such.

​How one identifies themselves culturally plays a fundamental role in how they go about their everyday proceedings. Professor Ware of the University of Delaware argues that a major component of French culture is the conviction that its culture is superior to those of all non-Europeans. This sentiment of superiority extends past French culture, but to the Caucasian race as a whole. The underlying factor of racism revolves around the concept that particular racial groups are superior to others, an ideology embedded in the belief systems of European colonizers that enabled centuries genocide, removal, enslavement of indigenous and African peoples. “When people grow up in a society…”, write Louise Derman-Sparks and Patricia G. Ramsey in their co-authored book, What If All the Kids are White?, in which “… despite rhetoric about equal opportunity, they are given more access to power, status, goods and services, they will come to think that they or their group is superior and that they deserve more than others.”

Representation in literature

​One of, if not the most influential contributors to this constant cycle of the development of racial and cognitive bias is children’s literature. Based on statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, as of 2015 73.3% of characters depicted in children’s books were white. The percentage sum of BIPOC characters represented was a meager 14.2%, while animals and other inanimate objects represented 12.5%! It is appalling that objects that have no capability of talking receive more representation than children of minority races.

Contrary to popular belief, Francophone Africa struggles with these issues. Libraries in those regions are funded by French associations with the currency of French literature edited by white Frenchmen, only further emphasizing the urgent need for greater representation. The lack of diversity in French literature can almost solely be blamed on publishers for selectively what authors and stories they want to support and display.

For example, when Andrea Beaty, an American children's author, writes the book Ada Twist, Scientist, in which the heroine is a little black girl, it is the only book in a collection of three of her titles which is not translated into French. In 2016, Ada Twist spent 17 weeks on the NYTimes best sellers list. The other two titles, about Rosie, the engineer and Iggy Peck, the architect, tell the stories of white children. These are translated by the Sarbacane Publishing house, where their editorial director, Emmanuelle Beulque, confirmed that a translation of Ada Twist, Scientist is not planned for "confidential" reasons. The excuse can’t be confidential when the legitimate reasoning is so blaring.

​The lack/abundance of representation can hinder the psychological development of young children resulting in cognitive biases being formed. In describing the research of William Cross relating to the development of African American children’s identity, authors Derman-Sparks et al write that,

… African American and other children of color may experience conflicts between their positive personal identities and negative societal messages about their group, resulting in ambivalence about their racial identity that they may express by wishing to be white...

In contrast to their peers of color, White children receive a barrage of messages from society that reinforces their positive group identity. While individual children's personal identities vary according to their specific life experiences, the dynamics of systemic racial advantage and disadvantage provide fertile ground for White children to highly value their whiteness, and to develop a sense of racial superiority.

​Derman-Sparks et al, What If All the Kids Are White?

​Representation aids in promoting a positive self-image along with eliminating any existing biases.

Knowing the importance of diversity and representation, the Diverse Book Finder is a phenomenal apparatus. Their ability to accumulate such a wide array of books that target so many undervalued issues in our society is fascinating. To a further extent, the fact that this collection is centered on the youth of the BIPOC community impacts the younger generation in unprecedented ways.

French in BIPOC picture books

Under the “Bi/Multilingual” filter under “Content” on the DBF search engine, one will discover six books translated into French or containing French words, all of which are listed below. Despite the small selection, it is beautiful to see a high percentage of books that are translated in French that cover multiple races, cultures, settings, ethnicities, and categories.* Accumulating higher quantities of French literature that incorporate diverse characters will help build an infrastructure that emphasizes the importance of embracing multi-faceted cultures and identities in the Francophone global community. This can demonstrate that many people of various characteristics (even those who don’t look like you) share a beautiful commonality: the French language.

Bi/Multilingual French Content: 

French editions (or originals) are also available for these titles:

Rachel’s Christmas boat


by Sophie LaBelle

When Lulu's Dad tells her that she's going to change her name to Rachel and be a lady now, Lulu has a major worry: what if Santa doesn't find out in time to fix all the tags on Rachel's Christmas presents? Lulu decides to take matters into her own hands and make sure that her Dad gets the lovely Christmas she deserves for being a most wonderful parent. |cBack cover

Cross Group Incidental

*Note from the DBF: For further exploration, try doing a “Setting” search using our Search Engine for each of the Francophone countries listed in the intro to this piece. While the resulting books may not be translated into French or contain any French words, they may cover valuable diverse content from various racial/cultural perspectives.

Many of the cover images on this site are from Google Books.
Using Tiny Framework Log in