Missing Adventures: Diversity and Children's Literature | Brynn Welch | TEDxEHC



Thanks a few years ago I became a mother through adoption and I'll just tell you right now I was totally unprepared not in that Oh everybody's unprepared you don't know what to expect kind of way I mean I was legitimately unprepared my home study finished a week later I was matched and 11 days later my child was born 11 days you might think that I would spend that precious tiny nesting window actually nesting and I can see why any reasonable person would think that but that's not what I did what I did is I took all of the unopened baby goodies my friends gave me put them in a bedroom shut the door and listened to Tom Petty tell me over and over again that waiting is the hardest part so when the call came at three o'clock in the morning to get on the road because my son was being born I just threw unopened baby goodies into the car and got on the road it was a few days before I got a chance to take serious inventory of what I had packed and it turns out that what I have packed what a couple of bottles a small pack of diapers a baby swing and three yes three tubes of diaper rash ointment so apparently my first three am parenting decision was that my child might not have food or clothes but he was going to have the most comfortable baby bum in the history of baby bombs but there was one thing that I was absolutely prepared for children's books as an ethicist I've spent a lot of time thinking about how we transmit educational advantages and disadvantages on to our children and of course one of those ways is through children's books reading bedtime stories to kids having books in the house exposing them to a wide range of vocabulary modeling reading is the sort of thing you do for fun so even before I became a mother I'd spent kind of a weird amount of time thinking about the relationship between parents children and their books but also as a person I have always loved children's books always you know you have that one that just sticks with you for a long time for me it was love you forever you know the one where the mother says I'll love you forever I'll like you for always as long as I'm living my baby you'll be and she sings it to her son up through his adulthood until he sings it to her in her old age I loved this book I loved it so much that when I was 22 my mother gave it to me for Christmas though at 22 the image of the mother driving through the street in the middle of the night with a ladder strapped to her car to climb into her adult son his bedroom window that was unsettling rather than charming or heartwarming and it's not just that one the little girl from my goodnight book is frozen in my brain the way that other people have the Coppertone baby frozen in theirs you know the little girl with the dogs pulling off her swimsuit which is also as an adult unsettling so I was ready for children's books I read blogs I shopped in stores I cannot tell you how much I loved them if it were up to me dragons love tacos would have won a Pulitzer by now so at almost 3:00 my son has loads of children's books he's got multiple bookshelves they're spread out throughout our house he keeps books in his diaper bag in the car he even keeps books in the kitchen cabinet where I store my crock-pot we'd love children's books and as much as I have loved sharing these books with him purchasing children's books has become frustrating and sometimes even heartbreaking and a reminder of how afraid I am about the world that's waiting for my son and that's because my son is black and most characters and children's books are not now I thought that I was imagining this but it turns out I'm really not so according to the cooperative children's book center at the University of Wisconsin in 2015 of the 3200 children's books that United States publishers sent them fewer than 300 were about a character that looked like my son right fewer than 30 were about Native Americans just over a hundred about Asian Pacific's and fewer than a hundred about Latinos if you're doing the math along with me you'll see that that means only about 16 percent of the children's books published that year we're about a person of color now you might be thinking one of two things right now you might be thinking oh my gosh that's shocking I had no idea how do I fix it and if that's where you are perfect stay tuned I'm coming back for you later but you might also be thinking wait wait but so many children's books aren't even about people they're about animals or plants or robots or whatever apparently this response was so common that in 2013 Kathleen Horning who's the director of the cooperative children's book Center started separating the books out she started separating out books about humans from books about animals or plants or whatever and when she wrote her report halfway through the year she said that what she found is books about humans it's still the case that people of color make up only 15% of those books so when you add back in all the other children's books only seven point eight percent of them were about a person of color think about what this means for a minute it means that in 2013 the same year in which my son was born over 90 percent of the children's books published were about a character who did not look like him so okay if you're writing a book about it about a person that person is probably going to be white white is the default so much so that when lost my name created customizable books for any child they in fact created only two levels of customization name and gender when I asked about this I received an email saying that the product had reached a wider market than they had initially anticipated and that their future products would show their diverse readership and their commitment to inclusive storytelling and I should say they've done it now you can customize by skin color as well but think about what their response to me means it means that the initial market they had in mind was made up of white children and there's nothing surprising about that white is the default you can see this everywhere in 2014 when Annie was re-released with club and Johnny Wallace in the title role vulture magazine panned the movie on the grounds that quote the black Engel was neutered according to the review the movie was a giant missed opportunity because it failed to offer an african-american slant on the story but think for a second about what that review means it means that the movies failure was that it never told us why Annie was black and tragically audiences weren't yet ready to see a person of color have the same sorts of adventures that they'd seen white people have at least with without asking why it wasn't a white person having this adventure as well of course if it is a white person having the adventure we don't ask that question we don't ask why is it a white person rather than a person of color we just don't talk about race the place you see this I think most clearly in children's books is in a series called ordinary people change the world um I would probably never have noticed this series but every time I'm somewhere children's books are sold I peruse and I was perusing and I found this I am Jackie Robinson and even though we have many books in our house about Jackie Robinson and they're excellent I reached a purchase this one because I try to vote with my dollars right this is what we do as consumers when we buy something we vote yes to this sort of thing and I absolutely want to vote yes to children's books about people who look like my son so I reached a purchase I am Jackie Robinson but I had to stop and it was the book next to it from the same series that stopped me because from this one series ordinary people changed the world I was standing in a store looking at a copy of I am Jackie Robinson next to a copy of I am Albert Einstein please do not misunderstand me both of these people absolutely deserve to be celebrated I have no problem with books celebrating Jackie Robinson and or Albert Einstein but in that moment in that store what I was looking at was the subtle and I am sure unintentional message that one person changed the world through sports and another who was just a genius the genius just happened to be the white guy so okay I went home and I went straight to the series website just hoping against hope that this was just an unfortunate pairing that surely when I looked at the series website I would find a black intellectual and a white athlete and I would promptly order the entire series and immediately commence a joyful dance of gratitude but as it turns out in addition to Jackie Robinson and Albert Einstein the other people this series says have changed the world our Rosa Parks Martin Luther King jr. Abraham Lincoln Amelia Earhart Lucille Ball and Helen Keller again all absolutely deserve to be celebrated but think about the message that sent the range of ways in which white Americans have changed the world has been academia flight activism comedy and the presidency and the range for black people with civil rights and sometimes sports and we already think it matters who children see and who they don't see I want my child to see the bhoot the book about Duke Ellington or Mae Jemison or Neil deGrasse Tyson Richard Pryor the books are out there they're just much harder to find because usually if we tell a story about a person of color the story is actually about the person's color and the person becomes a mere vessel for that bigger story so but look we do think it matters who people who children see right the reason that the lego female scientist set was so celebrated was because of a widespread recognition that both girls and boys should see science as something that girls do to it matters who you see and what they're doing when you see them and literature can help here recent research has found that reading the Harry Potter series can help instill favorable attitudes about immigrants refugees and homosexuals despite none of those groups of hearing in the books the theory is basically this look we always knew that if you know somebody who's different from you that can change your view of those differences and it turns out if you know someone who knows someone who's different from you that can change your view of those differences but now it looks like if you read about someone who knows someone who's different from you that can change your view of those differences and I want to be clear this is a series that could stand a fair bit more diversity and there's a meaningful sense in which this is one more opportunity for white children to see themselves as the heroes but what those kids do is they talk to creatures who are nothing like them and it turns out that children even very young children are capable of internalizing the message that differences don't have to be threatening and this shouldn't surprise us that much the reason we think it's good to read to children in the first place is because it helps develop their imagination children of color deserve to imagine themselves having the same range of ordinary and extraordinary experiences that white children get to imagine themselves having 90% of the time white children deserve to see children of color having those experiences children do not deserve the stereotypes that we hand down to them they deserve to start fresh and they're in the best position to start fresh their kids so okay we have a problem most children's literature is about a white character and when children's literature is about a person of color it's usually about the color rather than the person as much as I find this problem just awful I think the solution or at least part of it is awesome it's magical in fact because at least part of the solution is gonna be to buy more children's books so for me this is like Christmas there is a serious problem both for me personally and for us as a society and browsing and purchasing children's books constitutes genuine work toward addressing the problem I that's just incredible to me and by the way it should be incredible for you even if you don't need children's books because it's not just children's books where this happens it's movies it's televisions it's video games it's greeting cards it's anything sold in a market where white is the default so we can all get on board with helping this and the best part is that I'm not arguing that you spend more money so unlike lots of arguments about the ethical consumer I'm not saying buy this thing it costs a little more but ethically it's better I'm saying you're gonna spend money on movies and television and books and things you can either spend that money in a way that reinforces these really troubling stereotypes in a way that continues to make certain worlds much more easily accessible to white people than to people of color or you can spend that money say money addressing one of our most morally urgent social problems today you can even blame me if you need to for all the stuff you're gonna buy that you wouldn't have even known was out there if you hadn't been looking and at least when it comes to children's literature there is great stuff out there the dot ish happy birthday Madame chapeau please baby please elevator magic listen if you know a child who likes elevators and you hope that someday that child will also like math you cannot beat elevator magic I wouldn't have been looking for these if not for my son because most of us don't notice who's not there until somebody comes and gives a TEDx talk or one of these websites tells you we have a problem here's how you can help before I saw the face that just owned my heart that I wanted to see all the time everywhere I hadn't noticed all the times I didn't see him it's a little like the arrow in the FedEx logo you don't notice it until someone points it out to you but then once they do that's all you can see we've got to start seeing who's not there it's not just people of color children's literature should reflect a diversity of religions and family structures mental and physical abilities just to name whew this is what we've got to start doing we've got to start seeing who's not there whose adventures are missing we have to vote with our dollars we have to demand that we see stories about people who don't look like us that they get to have the same ordinary and extraordinary adventures and we've got a demand they take us along for the ride please my child deserves a world that sees him more than 8% of the time thank you you

11 thoughts on “Missing Adventures: Diversity and Children's Literature | Brynn Welch | TEDxEHC

  1. This is such an issue and there are so many people who do not know about it! Thank you for the great Ted Talk. I'm buying Elevator Magic for my nephew who happens to be a white autistic child. He will love it. <3

  2. Very well done! This is a great talk on a important topic…I will definitely use this great for my next article.. follow my publishing work using great TED talks on my FB page https://www.facebook.com/limitlessbybagherita/

  3. This is absurd, the characters should be the color the author envisions them. Authors should NOT force diversity for the sake of diversity. It's social justice warriors like this woman that promote racism by finding it in absolutely anything. Mulan isn't Chinese because the author changed his white protagonist into Asian, she's Asian because the story takes place in China. Ffs stop acting like being white is a crime.

  4. Beautifully done. Thank you so much for this! I'm currently creating a training for early childhood educators on how to incorporate really good multicultural and diverse literature into their classrooms. This was a great help!

  5. Not criticizing, but Dumboldor's gay and it is never stated what skin color Herminey is. Most people just assume she's white, but there is no evidence.

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