BOSTON — THE first time Walter Dean Myers saw a representation of African Americans in a book was at school, in a textbook.
"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."
Together with a handful of colleagues, Rohmer founded the nonprofit Children's Book Press, of which she is now publisher and executive director. "We had a vision," she says. "[We wanted] to encourage children's literature to become more inclusive of all children."
With the aid of a grant, the press undertook its first project - a series of bilingual picture books from a variety of Latino cultures.
Today, the organization has blossomed into a highly regarded multicultural publisher with an annual budget of nearly $1 million and a list of titles ranging from contemporary "family" stories to bilingual picture books in languages such as Spanish, Khmer, Korean, Hmong, and Vietnamese.
Rohmer is sanguine about grumbles from within the field that larger, mainstream publishers are only now jumping on the multicultural bandwagon, because there's money in it - cashing in on the pioneering work done by smaller publishers like the Children's Book Press.
"Obviously a small organization like ourselves, although we've certainly grown a lot, can't do it all," she says. "There's room for lots of people to do it in their different ways, and hopefully in a respectful way."
One such way currently being explored by several larger publishers is Spanish-language translations. Alison Stone, managing editor of Mirasol, the new Spanish-language imprint of Farrar Straus & Giroux, says the subsidiary sprang up "in response to the growing numbers of teachers and librarians at conferences around the country who were requesting books in Spanish."
Although so far Mirasol's titles are limited to backlist translations - such popular books as Natalie Babbitt's "Tuck Everlasting" and William Steig's "Brave Irene" - Ms. Stone says future plans include publishing "simultaneous English and Spanish editions as we acquire books with a multicultural angle."
Critics argue it's essential that such ventures focus on only those books with subject matter of particular interest to Hispanics. "I feel quite strongly that it is not," responds Regina Hayes, president and publisher of Viking Children's Books, which tried a Spanish-language edition reprint of Munro Leaf's "The Story of Ferdinand" about five years ago. Encouraged by the positive response, Viking has continued its efforts.
Notes Ms. Hayes, "Just as we are trying to broaden the scope of our English-language publishing to include books that portray many different cultures, so should we make available to Spanish-speaking children the books that have been important to and beloved by American children for many years." Marketing to all children
What the remainder of this century and the advent of the next brings for multicultural children's books remains to be seen.
Kruse feels one "critical matter" is "whether or not publishers decide to market all books to all children" - not just target minorities.
"We're living in a global community," she says. "Really progressive parents and teachers recognize that for children to live healthy and happy and positive lives, they need to understand themselves as part of a widely diverse community of people. Whether or not that community is in front of their doorstep is not the point."
Kruse also worries whether interest amongst mainstream publishers for multiculturalism will be sustained.
"It's a very exciting time," she says. "I just hope it's not a passing fashion or a fad. I hope [publishers] aren't just going to say, 'Well now we did that in 1990 and '91 and '92, so that's that.' "