Our nation’s children are increasingly diverse. Their books aren’t.
The 2020 U.S. Census reveals that 53% of the U.S. children’s population are children of color and more children than ever before identify as multiracial, yet the books that children see do not reflect that diversity.
Out of 3,450 children’s books published in the U.S. in 2022 and reviewed by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, 493 have a Black/African American primary or significant secondary character (fiction) or human subject (nonfiction), setting, or topic; 369 feature Asian; 238 feature Latine; and 60 feature Indigenous peoples. These numbers fall far short of representing the more than half of America’s children who are children of color.
Growing up with a rich supply of diverse books is important for all young children’s healthy development. Research suggests that children begin to discern and make decisions about race as early as 3 months old. Further research demonstrates that children’s development of early literacy skills (including the motivation to engage with books) are strongly connected to their later reading success.
Building children’s motivation to access books and foster their identity as “readers” is too important to leave the current disparities unchallenged. Infants, toddlers and preschool-age children need the opportunity to grow up with books that accurately represent themselves, their families and their communities. School-age children who have access to books that accurately represent them, their families and their communities can learn to read while processing visual and textual information that is culturally familiar. In other words, children can bring their existing “funds of knowledge” to the processes involved in learning to read.
While publishers have been making progress on elevating diverse content, those books are still too few and too expensive. In our diverse world, this puts all our children at a disadvantage – and this under-representation is especially inequitable for children in low-income communities, their families and the early childhood providers who support them – negatively impacting millions of children.
Today, an imperfect storm has elevated the urgency to address this issue – and on a scale that matches the scope of the problem. Pandemic-related learning disruptions have had a dramatic impact. Reading scores hit a historic low; findings from the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reveal that more than two-thirds (68%) of U.S. fourth graders are not proficient in reading. And while all children were impacted, children of color are particularly affected. As the Annie E. Casey Foundation reports: in 2022, at least eight in 10 (84%) of Black fourth graders, 82% of American Indian fourth graders and 80% of Latino fourth graders were not proficient in reading.