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How Our Book Categories & Race/Culture Tagging System Can Benefit You

This post was written collaboratively by our three founders -- Brenna Callahan (Bates Alum), Dr. Krista Aronson (Professor of Psychology), and Anne Sibley O'Brien (picture book creator).

There are a lot of things that make the Diverse BookFinder one-of-a-kind within the broader diverse books movement. But there’s one thing in particular that draws the most interest in our work -- our unique book categories! Why so much attention to these? To put it simply, they are super useful when it comes to assessing the range of representation of Black and Indigenous people and People of Color (BIPOC) in any picture book collection.

The intentional development of a racially/culturally diverse collection requires mapping strengths and gaps, as well as tracking growth and change -- all of which our categories can help you do! In October, librarians will be able to use our new Collection Analysis Tool (CAT) to generate a report that identifies these strengths and gaps in any given picture book collection (follow us on Instagram and sign up for our newsletter to stay tuned!). So we thought it was a good time to share more about how we code for race/culture and how we developed our nine unique book categories, and why -- taken together -- they matter.

How Our Collection Began

During the summer of 2014 -- to support our Director, Krista Aronson's academic research about the impact of picture books on children's racial and ethnic identities -- we started collecting current picture books featuring BIPOC published or distributed in the United States. We had no idea what we were getting into or where it would take us. We started by making a huge list, searching publisher catalogs/websites, and falling down the rabbit hole time and time again. Slowly, as we secured funds, our collection grew.

Our collection development strategy has evolved since then, due to the expertise of librarians on our team. However, despite new knowledge and skills, the fact that finding racially/culturally diverse picture books is actually really hard hasn’t changed all that much. That’s because the language and process currently used to identify books as racially/culturally diverse -- that is, the "metadata" and algorithms that surface them -- remains inadequate. And that’s an understatement.

Finding racially and culturally diverse picture books is actually really hard because the language and process currently used to identify books as such is inadequate.

Finding Racially/Culturally Diverse Books Is Hard!

It was precisely this inadequacy that prompted how we code for race/culture and the birth of our categories. So follow us into the weeds a little, if you will...

The Bates College Ladd Library houses our picture book collection. This means that each book in our collection is cataloged using traditional subject headings -- in this case, Library of Congress subject headings. But due to cataloging inconsistencies, inaccuracies, and idiosyncracies, there is currently no way to find/isolate all books with depictions of one particular racial/cultural group through the use of these traditional subject headings. Here are some examples:

  • Although our collection includes titles featuring children from a wide range of Asian backgrounds, searches for fiction using the Library of Congress subject headings “Japanese American children--Fiction” or “Chinese American children--Fiction” actually returned no results. Also, sometimes the subject headings don't include "children" even when the book is about children or childhood.
  • To find all books featuring Latinx/Hispanic/Latin American characters, a search using multiple (and not necessarily exhaustive) subject headings such as “Mexican Americans,” “Cuban Americans,” “Puerto Ricans,” etc., is necessary.
  • Similarly, a search for all books with Black/African American characters would need to include subject headings for “Ghanaian Americans,” “Sudanese Americans,” and so on.

Furthermore, current subject headings do not necessarily capture the content of these books -- not just who is in them, but what they are about -- in any way meaningful to those of us advocating for more and better in the world of diverse books.

These difficulties when doing catalog searches to locate books from within our own collection galvanized our passion for creating a “tagging” system to make it easier for anyone to find and use racially/culturally diverse picture books in their research, curriculum development, classrooms, homes, etc. In our case, a better tagging system could be used to identify research samples about which we could offer more granular analyses. That is, if we wanted to:

  • better understand which underrepresented racial/cultural groups are in trade picture books (who), and more importantly,
  • identify possible meaningful trends in how they are represented

we needed an entirely new language that could easily identify these books and capture the messages therein.

How We (Painstakingly) Developed Our Categories

To get started, we read the research! Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop's (1982) foundational research exploring representational themes in a sample of 150 books of fiction about African Americans published from 1965-1979 identified the following themes:

  • Books depicting negative or positive interactions across black/white racial boundaries, with an emphasis on resolving differences or conflict.
  • Books portraying Black characters where race is not a feature of the story (which she referred to as “melting pot” books).
  • Books meant to help Black children celebrate and appreciate their culture and heritage of survival in the face of immense challenge. This theme re-emerged in an analysis of books 20 years after Sims' research, in which it was referred to as “culturally specific books” (Cai 2002).

In their 1994 research, Cai and Sims Bishop noted the emergence of “world literature,” which they defined as literature from or about non-Western cultures outside of the U.S., including folkloric tales. Finally, Pescosolido, Grauerholz, and Milkie (1997) noted that during a time of great social upheaval around race in the U.S. (in this case, 1930 - 1975), the picture books published conveyed “safe and distant” racial images of Blacks in Africa through folktales.

If we wanted to better understand which underrepresented racial/cultural groups are in picture books, and more importantly, how they are being represented, we needed an entirely new language that could identify diverse books and capture the messages therein in a meaningful way.

Using this previous research and our own experiences as parents, picture book creators, and educators/scholars as a springboard to examine current racially and culturally diverse picture books, we defined the categories we expected to see in any random sample of titles:

  • books depicting relationships across difference
  • books depicting experiences of oppression and survival
  • culturally-specific stories
  • folktales
  • stories featuring characters of color in which race wasn’t central to the narrative.

Then it was time for the rubber to hit the road! Over the next three months, we met every week on the Bates campus to read a random sample of books and discuss whether and how we saw these categories emerging? Did the above categories actually capture the messages we were seeing? What fit? What was missing? Each time we met, we systematically redefined, reshaped, and/or added categories as necessary, to be sure that they reflected and were grounded in the books themselves (see Holton and Walsh 2017 for a description of this qualitative research practice known as “grounded theory”). We did this until we could reliably fit all of the existing and new books into one or more categories.

This process resulted in the development of our nine categories:

  • Any Child
  • Beautiful Life
  • Biography
  • Cross-Group
  • Folklore
  • Incidental
  • Informational
  • Oppression & Resilience
  • Race/Culture Concepts.

To see detailed definitions, visit Our Categories and/or sign up for our newsletter to receive a free color print-out of the categories.

How can this help you?

Our tagging system combined with the most comprehensive collection of picture books featuring BIPOC makes it possible for anyone to ask, “Who is represented in picture books and how are they represented?” and get a snapshot of the current state of picture books.

We "tag" the characters in any given book based on intentionally broad (see why above) racial/cultural groups. We also "tag" the more granular ethnic, religious, tribal, and gender diversities of the characters, as well as the book setting. (We use multiple sources to identify these elements, including: characters' explicit self-identifications, front and end matter of book, author/illustrator notes, book info. provided by publishers, author/illustrator interviews about the book, etc.). This tagging system, combined with our book categories, makes is possible to take an in depth view of any collection to ensure that it doesn’t perpetuate what Nigerian novelist and activist Chimamanda Adiche calls the “danger of a single story.”

This means you can think about not only who is in your collection but how they are represented when making book purchases to ensure that you don’t have an overabundance of books featuring, for example, African American characters that focus on oppression. Although these books relay powerful accounts of survival, resistance, and triumph in the face of great adversity, a predominance of these titles at the expense of others risks sending the message that suffering and victimization are exhaustive of Black experience, and obscures the realities of historical and current discrimination against other racial/cultural groups. And this is…

...Why Our Collection Includes All Titles Featuring BIPOC

Reviewing books for cultural accuracy and breadth/depth of representation is an absolutely essential step toward necessary change, so that all children can find authentic mirrors and windows in the books they read. For this reason, we link our book titles to professional reviews and cultural critiques when possible. But even when selected titles are free of stereotypes and misinformation, a collection can send unintended but equally impactful messages.

A diverse group of culturally authentic books might still imply, for instance, that Black lives are defined by pain and struggle, that Indigenous people all lived long ago, or that Asian and Middle Eastern people are exotically "foreign." Our work is designed to address this by allowing for a broader snapshot of the picture book world at large, and by offering an additional tool to librarians and educators, publishers and parents as they seek to create a wide and balanced range of messages about racially and culturally underrepresented groups through picture books.

Our understanding of existing messages about BIPOC in multicultural picture books is an ongoing process. As we read more, we refine more. As the publishing industry grows and changes, so do we. As new, previously marginalized voices find their way into the industry, and as creators respond to the needs and desires of their audiences -- we strive to capture those changes and remain open to growth in our own work.

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color poster of our unique picture book categories