The Missing Faces in Children's Tales

Absence of blacks in picture books coincides with racial conflicts

Children's picture books often lure readers into a magical world of time-honored games, friendship, and talking animals.

But a look at the volumes published in the United States during the mid- to late-20th century has shed light on race relations, highlighting one of those most common of childhood hurts: leaving some people out.

That was what three professors of sociology found when they studied American picture books through a race-sensitive lens.

Elizabeth Grauerholz, professor of sociology at Purdue University, Bernice Pescosolido of Indiana University, and Melissa Milkie of the University of Maryland studied the portrayal of African-Americans in more than 2,400 children's picture books from 1937 to 1993. Their report will be published in the American Sociological Review in June.

They found that during the times of greatest social conflict between whites and blacks in the US, blacks virtually disappeared from children's books. During these years, blacks were visible in other media, however, notes Professor Grauerholz in a phone interview. Publishers did not know what images were appropriate.

Blacks were more likely to be represented in books during the earliest of the period of their study, from 1938 to about 1957, with decreases in the mid-'50s.

From 1958 through 1964, virtually no blacks appear in children's picture books. Only one of the 24 Caldecott books, one of the 120 books in the Children's Catalog sample, and 10 of 240 Little Golden Books depict black characters.

Ironically, "The Snowy Day," published in 1962 and winner of a Caldecott Medal (given by the American Library Association in recognition of excellence in illustration), introduced one of the most prominent black children in contemporary picture books. Peter, the book's hero, became the first black primary or central character in a picture book set in modern American society.

In the late '60s, blacks were reintroduced as characters in children's books but in "safe" and acceptable ways, Grauerholz says. For example, some books were reissued with blacks replacing white characters. About the same time, books with all-black characters started to show up, but they were not contemporary depictions; they were distant, historical images of, say, blacks in Africa.

In the mid-1960s through the mid-'70s, the number of books including blacks rose dramatically. There were a couple of things going on, Grauerholz explains: The Caldecott award panel highlighted books that focused on blacks. In 1971, "Moja Means One," by Tom and Muriel Feelings, became the first Caldecott Medal given to a book written and illustrated by black authors. Also during the 1970s, more books by black authors and illustrators came on the scene.

Since 1965, the percentage of black characters appearing in children's picture books has stayed relatively the same: between 20 and 30 percent.

Another poignant element to the professors' study involved tracking interracial interaction in picture books. Such depictions continue to be rare, the professors conclude. Illustrations may show black characters and white characters standing beside each other - say on a playground or in a street scene - but equal and intimate interaction between them is less likely, she says.

"In terms of social significance, it is important we are aware of the lack of interracial images that exist," says Grauerholz, whose next project with her colleagues is to study gender issues. While the current study doesn't attempt to comment on effects, it is food for thought, she says. Books may provide the first images for children, and they gravitate toward what's familiar.

But the lack of images of interracial interaction might be changing. These days, more children's books are presenting race issues in overt ways, as if to raise consciousness, Grauerholz says, citing for example, "Smoky Night," a 1994 book about the Los Angeles riots. The book, by Eve Bunting, illustrated by David Diaz, was a Caldecott winner.

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