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Maisha M. Auma
Understanding the Diversity Gap in Children’s Literature

A child reading a book.
Photo (detail): Aaron Burden/Unsplash

“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize.”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in ‘The Danger of a Single Story’. (Adichie, 2009)

By Maureen Maisha Auma

On Being Excluded

 When Children begin to explore literary Worlds, they are confronted with a reality of deep inequalities. Writing about multilayered intersectional experiences of ‘missing in literature’, about the lacking representation of hyperdiverse realities in Children’s books, from my location in Berlin, Germany includes looking into the context of Children’s literature in German-speaking Countries. It also is about looking outward to the wider European context. It further includes looking towards underrepresented geopolitical contexts like African, Asian and South American societies, as well as to the lived realities of First People (indigenous societies) whose daily experiences and territories have been erased from narrations of social realities. And finally, it includes looking to the North American context, as a context from which global dominance is deployed, in narrating social realities, while the same context functions as a site for creativity and resistance in initiating and advocating for more diversity, inclusion, social justice and antiracism in Children’s books. Nigerian feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns of the dangers of ‘a single story’, based on the geopolitical dominance of white- and west-centric narrations. This critique questions stories which generalize the experiences of white, male, able-bodied, ‘white-christian’, heterosexual, male-identifying, middle-class people. Centralizing these perspectives is deployed at the expense of Black, Indigenous, People of Color, Sinti and Roma, muslim- or jewish-identified, religious-non-practicing, disabled/other-abled, working-class or working poor, female-identifying, queer, inter* and trans* people.
The singularity written into the stories in Children’s books contains problematic normalizations. The most comprehensive study of 20th century children's books undertaken in the United States; “Gender in Twentieth-Century Children's Books: Patterns of Disparity in Titles and Central Characters”, analyzed 6,000 books published from 1900 to 2000. It was carried out by sociologists of gender at Florida State University (McCabe, Fairchild, Grauerholz, Pescosolido and Tope, 2011). The most important finding is that when adult males and male animals counted into one category of representation they were represented as lead characters in 100% of all analyzed Children’s books. Adult females and female animals were only represented as lead characters in 33%. Racialized marginalization in Children’s publishing shows a similar pattern of inequality: Based on descriptive statistics collected by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, CCBC in Madison/Wisconsin (Diversity Gap Studies) since 1985, David Huyck and Sarah Park Dahlen found enormous disparities in the representation of BIPoC[1] Children in comparison to animal figures and white characters in Children’s books (Stechyson, 2019). For the year 2015, of the approximately 3,000 annual new Children’s publications 73,3% of the main characters were white children, 12,5% of the main characters were animals (including fantasy-figures and inanimate objects) leaving only 14,2% for the representation of all racially marginalized groups together. This picture had shifted in 2018 to now 50% of all main characters being white, 27% were now animals including fantasy figures and only 23% of all main characters were all racially marginalized groups counted together. The relation of represented Children of Color had now sunk below the level of represented animals. There is no difficulty in representing animals, fantasy-animals and inanimate figures. There seems to be resistance to representing Children of Color and their realities.

Harmful Fictions

The representations of the social world in Children’s literature are mostly fictional. They have however proved to be systematically excluding. Where BIPoC children are included, their depictions and those of the geopolitical territories associated with their lives tend to be stereotypical, stigmatizing or dehumanizing (Auma, 2018). Many German Picture Books and Children’s books normalize the ‘white adventurer’. The German shoe label Salamander has published a comic-booklet (featuring its mascot, a male fire salamander named ‘Lurchi’, which is derived from the German word for salamander, Lurch), from 1937 to the present. In a 4th Edition of “Lurchi with the barbarians/Lurchi bei den Wilden” from 2019, Lurchi paints himself black (which is in effect Blackface). This is accompanied by a racist term about Lurchi becoming a N****lein (a little N****). Lurchi does this to not being cooked and eaten (Bochmann and Staufer, 2013; 7). The geopolitical context of his ‘adventure’ is a BIPoC society. Other German/European examples of the white adventurer are “Die kleine Hexe/The little witch”, “Pippi Langstrumpf in Takatuka Land” as well as the Tin Tin Comics (Tim und Struppi in A****) to name just a few (Auma, 2018). BIPoC Children and the societies are depicted systematically as laughable, comical, barbaric, naïve or immoral, as beings closer to nature than to culture, as beings who are dependent on white knowledge and benevolence (Auma, 2018). Such depictions are not only fictional, they are also harmful! They do not only deprive very young BIPoC readers of a positive self-image and positive images of their social worlds, they also force them to deal with the normalization of their devaluation, of being overlooked or dehumanized. Young readers must ‘read between the racism/the harm’ (Masad, 2016). These patterns of Dis-Empowerment are no misrepresentations. They are toxic representations, because they cause harm to the self-worth of racially marginalized children. The regularity with which geopolitical contexts associated with BIPoC and their social lives are represented is a form of cultural violence.

Powerful Readers

I would like to close with some thoughts on initiatives, working towards more equity, race- and norm-critical intersectionality and social, economic and political inclusion in Children’s literature. They want to promote the production of diverse Worlds in books and other childhood media, addressed at plural, hyperdiverse societies/mini-publics. A common aim of two European initiatives; DRIN (Diversity, Representation, Inclusion and Norm-Critique) and >Powervolle Lesende< (Powerful Readers)[2] is to bring together key actors in the arena of children’s books production, circulation and consumption, especially towards the goal of re-centering the voices and perspectives of marginalized social groups. Four North American initiatives “WNDB #WeNeedDiverseBooks, “Disability in Kid Lit”, “Young, Black and Lit” and “I am Here, I am Queer, What the Hell Do I Read?”, all serve as an inspiration for the quality of intersectional justice approaches necessary, for work required in order to consistently empower diverse and marginalized young readers. These initiatives all draw on Rudine Sims Bishop’s call to create and normalize ‘Windows and Mirrors’ with regard to racially marginalized young readers. Mirrors serve to empower young BIPoC readers to see themselves, their social lives and the geopolitical regions associated with their hyperdiverse diasporic realities represented as normal elements of daily narrations. Windows serve to close the ‘Empathy Gap’ towards marginalized groups, by normalizing the way they negotiate barriers and the conditions of their dehumanization. Windows provide a crucial insight into the lives of all our ‘marginalized neighbors’, as they deal with realities, which are rarely represented in children’s media. In Chimamanda Adichie’s words, these approaches broaden the scope of the stories we tell and read. They reconnect us all in our daily struggle to affirm our own and each other’s humanity. 


Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi (2009): TED-Talk “The Danger of A Single Story”. Transcript, Online: https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story/transcript#t-1110035 
Auma, Maureen Maisha (2018): Kulturelle Bildung in pluralen Gesellschaften: Diversität von Anfang an! Diskriminierungskritik von Anfang an!. In: KULTURELLE BILDUNG. Online: https://www.kubi-online.de/artikel/kulturelle-bildung-pluralen-gesellschaften-diversitaet-anfang-diskriminierungskritik-anfang
DISABILITY IN KID LIT: http://disabilityinkidlit.com/
Gender in Twentieth-Century Children's Books: Patterns of Disparity in Titles and Central Characters Janice McCabe, Emily Fairchild, Liz Grauerholz, Bernice A. Pescosolido and Daniel Tope, Gender & Society 2011, Pp 25: 197
Gender bias uncovered in children's books with male characters, including male animals, leading the fictional pack. In: Science Daily, May 4, 2011, Online: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/05/110503151607.htm
Bochmann, Corinna/Staufer, Walter (2013): Vom „N*-könig“ zum „Südseekönig“ zum...? Politische Korrektheit in Kinderbüchern. Das Spannungsfeld zwischen diskriminierungsfreier Sprache und Werktreue und die Bedeutung des Jugendschutzes. In: BPJM-Aktuell (Bundesprüfstelle für jugendgefährdende Medien) (2/2013).
Decke-Cornill, Helene (2007):"Literaturdidaktik in einer 'Pädagogik der Anerkennung': Gender and other suspects". In: Wolfgang Hallet und Ansgar Nünning (Hrsg.): Neue Ansätze und Konzepte der Literatur- und Kulturdidaktik. Trier: WVT Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 239-258.
Masad, Ilana (2016): Read Between the Racism: The Serious Lack of Diversity in Book Publishing. http://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/9aex3p/read-between-the-racism-the-serious-lack-of-diversity-in-book-publishing
Bishop, Rudine Sims (1990): „Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Doors“. Originally Appeared in Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom, 6(3). www.scenicregional.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Mirrors-Windows-and-Sliding-Glass- Doors.pdf
#WeNeedDiverseBooks: http://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/detailBook.asp?idBooks=9187&BOW=true
Young, Black and Lit: https://www.youngblackandlit.org/  
DRIN Network: https://www.goethe.de/ins/fi/de/kul/sup/drin.html
Generation Adefra Blog (2020): POWERVOLLE LESENDE! EIN LESE(AB)ZEICHEN. http://www.adefra.com/index.php/blog/89-powervolle-lesende-ein-lese-ab-zeichen-2 [16.10.2020]
Blog Leewind.Org: I'm Here. I'm Queer. What the Hell Do I Read? Online: https://www.leewind.org/search/label/Jacqueline%20Woodson [16.10.2020]

[1] BIPoC is an abbreviation for ‚Black, Indigenous, People of Color’.
[2] Find the Webpages of both initiatives in my sources.