In his 1976 essay The Devil Finds Work, James Baldwin wrote, “No one, I read somewhere, a long time ago, makes his escape personality black.”
Baldwin was talking about the movies, but he might as well have been talking about children’s books. When I was a kid, I loved reading works like J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. But virtually all fantasy novels aimed at younger readers featured a complete absence of heroes of color. There were no black knights or wizards who looked like me, fighting dragons or outwitting minotaurs.
Part of the fantasy, I realized, was that we weren’t there.
In a recent blog post on the Wall Street Journal online, I broke the news of the most recent numbers on diversity in children’s books from an annual survey done by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, a study and research library of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The CCBC surveyed 3,200 children’s books in 2013 and found that only 2.9 percent of the books had significant African or African-American content, and just 2 percent of the books were by black authors and/or illustrators.
The numbers are bad and getting worse: A previous report from CCBC had found that 3.3 percent of kids’ books released in 2012 had significant African or African-American content.
When word of the new survey spread, the numbers spurred a number of articles in a variety of publications about the lack of diversity in kids’ fiction, and the need for kids of color to see themselves in the books that they read.
Very few of those stories, however, recommended specific multicultural fantasy and science fiction titles that readers should seek out. So let me mention a few:
Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea novels feature heroes of color, as do the spinoff books from Nickelodeon’s terrific animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender. There’s also Malorie Blackman’s Naughts & Crosses, Marie Lu’s Legend series, Un Lun Dun by China Mieville and Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, which is aimed at adults but can be appreciated by older teens.
My new book, Game World, features three heroes who are, respectively, black, Latino and Asian. Many fantasy books tend to draw on the myths of the Old World; I wrote Game World to tap into the legends of the New World, specifically Jamaica, where I was born.
Very few of the recent stories about diversity in children’s literature emphasized the point that the lack of ethnic characters in books isn’t just bad for children of color, it’s also bad for white kids and any readers who want to understand other cultures, traditions and perspectives. Our children face an increasingly competitive global economy. The ability to understand and interact with people from different backgrounds is something young people need in grade school, in college and in the workplace. Books are an important part of learning about other people and other points of view.
It's also just a fun, good thing for children to read a book and enter the mind of someone who is different from them. Part of what makes it so interesting is that they learn new things. One of those things may be that they're not so different after all.
In Baldwin’s day, he couldn’t envision people making their “escape personality” black. Today, as I visit schools to talk about Game World, I routinely run into kids of all races who dream of being Barack Obama, Beyoncé, Jay Z, LeBron James or Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Readers today are more than willing to cross cultural and racial lines. There’s no excuse for children’s literature to have so few heroes who are black, Asian, Latino or other.
Fantasy fiction needs to start dreaming in color.