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A case for BIPOC books

Diversifying children’s literature is both enriching and worth celebrating.

Photo by Ed Robertson on Unsplash

In children’s and young adult (YA) literature, representation matters. According to an article on the University of Wisconsin – Madison’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion website, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) has found that the highest percentage of available books by African American authors or illustrators between 1985 and 2014 was 3.5%. The percentage was even lower for other communities of color in that same period.

The CCBC has indexed every new book to track diversity trends in children’s and young adult literature since 1985. By looking at the CCBC’s 2020 statistics, one finds that the percentage of books about Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) by U.S. publishers is approximately 30%, or 949 out of 3,115 books.

Housed in the University of Wisconsin’s School of Education, the center annually publishes CCBC Choices, a list of 250 best children’s and YA books selected from upwards of 3,500 titles. The list highlights great books with emphasis on diverse voices. A quick search for the keywords “refugee” and “immigrant” in this 2021 publication yields 21 and 22 entries respectively — a theme that is of interest to me as a storyteller writing about the experiences of Somalis in Minnesota and beyond.

The center’s reasons for promoting and supporting diverse children’s literature include validation and representation. The UW article notes that hashtags such as #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #OwnVoice were also born out of a need to change the status quo on two fronts: low percentage of books with BIPOC characters and misrepresentations of communities of color in literature. The #OwnVoice movement particularly advocates that “cultural insiders” write about BIPOC characters and tell their stories in their own voices.

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In the early 1990s, Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop penned an essay titled, “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors.” The essay explores the importance of giving BIPOC children the opportunity to see themselves represented and reflected in literature. And since currently “more than half of K–12 public school students are children of color,” the need for representation in literature is real — and immediate. A piece on the PBS blog observes: “Seeing ourselves in literature is a gift. It is an empowering experience as a reader to see a protagonist who has a similar name to us and shares a similar background.”

Abdullahi Janno
Abdullahi Janno
In a 2015 YouTube clip, Bishop again invites readers to get a sense of the experiences of underrepresented communities by reading diverse books as windows into unfamiliar worlds. This view is also reflected in a quote by a former head of the CCBC: “If children grow up never seeing, never reading, never hearing the variety of the wide range of voices, they lose so much…. They are going to be stunned when everyone is not like them.” In other words, diversifying children’s literature is both enriching and worth celebrating.

Reading brings joy and expands a child’s horizon. As is often said, literature teaches empathy. And the promotion of BIPOC literature is not a demotion of any other type of literature. Instead, it’s an assertion that these underrepresented voices are also an integral part of America’s literary tradition: E Pluribus Unum — Out of many, One.

Abdullahi Janno is a storyteller and educator. He writes short stories both in Somali and English. He lives and works in St. Paul.