Needed: Stories That Reflect Many Cultures
THE first time Walter Dean Myers saw a representation of African Americans in a book was at school, in a textbook.Skip to next paragraph
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"They were slaves," he recalls. "I attended an integrated school, and my friends made jokes like, 'Walter, here's you!' "
"From that moment on," says Mr. Myers, a highly acclaimed writer of children's books, "I could no longer in my heart be George Washington. From that moment on, I was a black person. I internalized the concept that I was different, that I could not be [one of] the heroes."
It's no secret that children need positive self-images and that a vital wellspring of those images is found in children's literature.
For years, however, minority children have struggled with a feeling of invisibility. Library and bookstore shelves were stocked with folk and fairy tales that were largely European in origin, picture books rarely portrayed anything but pink-cheeked, pink-skinned children, and books for older readers featuring protagonists of color were almost nonexistent.
Since 1986, however, when the current boom in children's books began, this imbalance has slowly - very slowly - begun to change.
Today, multiculturalism is arguably one of the hottest topics in children's book circles.
The label itself is often the topic of debate. Some define it as only those books by and about people of color. Others broaden the definition to include, for example, picture books that, while not specifically multicultural in theme, portray children from a variety of racial backgrounds. But the enormous need for books that embrace children of all backgrounds is not debatable.
Demographics underscore the fact that a significant increase in these books is long overdue. Enrollment of nonwhite and Latino children at the elementary and secondary school level is expected to increase from 29 percent in 1986 to 34 percent by 1995, according to figures from a race and ethnicity study done by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education and provided by Richard E. Whalen of the United States Department of Education.
In terms of multicultural titles, children's books are nowhere near attaining that projected one-in-three ratio. Although the supply has increased - from a drop in the bucket to a steady trickle over the past five years - it's still small.
Books by and about native Americans and Asian-Americans are in especially short supply, according to Ginny Moore Kruse, director of the Cooperative Children's Book Center (CCBC) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a noncirculating research library of children's and young adult literature. Of those that do exist, most are in the realm of folklore.
Ms. Kruse also cites CCBC-tracked figures showing that, although books by African-American authors and artists have more than tripled since 1986, in reality this impressive-sounding increase works out to a mere 70 titles among the more than 4,000 new children's books in 1991 - less than 2 percent of the total. 'We had a vision'
For Myers, the invisibility he felt as a black child spurred his career as a writer. Speaking recently at the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons College in Boston, Mass., the author says that when he began to write, "I remembered my own youth and not finding blacks in books, and [I decided that I was] going to write books which celebrate black life."
Minority invisibility was the catalyst for yet another mover and shaker in the world of children's books. Back in 1975, Harriet Rohmer's son was enrolled in a Head Start program in the Mission District of San Francisco, a largely Spanish-speaking area.
"I noticed that the children just didn't have any books that represented their own culture and their own background," Ms. Rohmer explains. "They never had the opportunity to look into a book and see themselves."