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Youth and Innocence: Colorism in Picture Books

Amy George is an MLIS graduate student at the University of Maryland with a focus on diversity and inclusion and a current intern at the Diverse BookFinder.

Illustration by Kaylani Juanita from When Aidan Became a Brother by Kyle Lukoff

Do you see yourself in picture books? I didn't when I was a kid. Now as a parent I see so many diverse characters, it can be really comforting to see the "progress" in the numbers of books featuring diverse characters. However far we have come it is important that we examine how diverse characters are represented in picture books and what the implications of those representations can mean to readers. Are portrayals helpful or harmful? Do they perpetuate negative stereotypes? A new study from the University of Chicago used artificial intelligence to analyze diversity in children’s books. Some of the findings are similar to what we at Diverse BookFinder know: that there aren’t enough diverse books, that diverse books need to be mainstream and accessible, and that diversity is just the first step in representation, specifically regarding the depiction of skin tone in characters of different ages.

One particular finding was, “that despite no systematic differences in skin tones across ages in society, children are more likely than adults to be shown with lighter skin.” Study leader Assistant Professor Anjali Adukia commented,

Perhaps most surprising was that children are portrayed with lighter skin than adults in each collection, which has concerning implications for how perceptions related to youth and innocence may be shaped.

- Anjali Adukia, What We Teach About Race and Gender: Representation in Images and Text of Children’s Books

Studies do in fact show that there is a bias in associating darker skin tones with maturity. According to a study, The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children, researchers found that on average people perceived black students age 10 and above as 4.5 years older than their age. The study notes that the perception of childhood includes “innocence” and “the need for protection”, when children are viewed as older based on race they lose those crucial views and are more vulnerable to harsher punishment and/or violence.  

At Diverse BookFinder we strive to be a resource for librarians, educators, and parents to find books with a broad range of racial and cultural portrayals, that depict diverse representation, to challenge readers, adult and child alike, AND to consider biases depicted in representations. Searching for books that counter the trend recognized in the study was challenging and I found that often when adult and children were depicted with similar skin tones they were a grandparent and child relationship rather than a parent or a teacher. I found similarities in skin tone were more common with depictions of lighter skinned children and adults and with female characters more so than male or gender expansive identities.

Below are some books in our collection that picture diverse families without a significant difference in skin tone between the adult and child characters. 

Grandmother School


by Rina Singh and Ellen Rooney

"This brilliantly illustrated picture book tells the story of the Aajibaichi Shala, the Grandmother School, that was opened in Phangane, India, in 2016 to teach local grandmothers how to read and write. Every morning, a young girl walks her grandmother to the Aajibaichi Shala, the school that was built for the grandmothers in her village to have a place to learn to read and write. The narrator beams with pride as she drops her grandmother off with the other aajis to practice the alphabet and learn simple arithmetic. A moving story about family, women and the power of education—when Aaji learns to spell her name you’ll want to dance along with her. Women in countless countries continue to endure the limitations of illiteracy. Unjust laws have suppressed the rights of girls and women and kept many from getting an education and equal standing in society. Based on a true story from the village of Phangane, India, this brilliantly illustrated book tells the story of the grandmothers who got to go to school for the first time in their lives." -- publisher

Beautiful Life Oppression & Resilience

Many of the cover images on this site are from Google Books.
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