by Katharine Strange
For his first story time at a South End library, Will Wagler picked out what he thought was a sure-fire funny book. “I had this book called Hair and it’s about this girl whose hair grows really long and out of control,” Wagler explained. “But as I’m reading this story I look out at the kids who are in the room and a lot of them are West African, many of the girls are in hijabs, and I’m telling them this story about a white girl with big, long hair, and it basically didn’t resonate at all. And I thought, ‘OK, this is not working.’”
Wagler refers to this incident as his “culturally insensitive story time.” It was an aha moment for him. He sought advice from the kids’ preschool teacher, who told him that the kids would like to see themselves and their culture reflected in the books they read. He took that advice to heart and began searching out books featuring children of color. Wagler realized that the children’s books at the three South End libraries where he works needed to reflect the populations which used those libraries, primarily Black, Asian, and Latinx.
It’s clearly paying off. When I walk into the New Holly Branch to meet Wagler, I spotted many children’s books on display featuring people of color, including a “new baby” book featuring a Black family.
The children’s book industry remains stubbornly white. If you want to find a book featuring a little white boy as the protagonist, your choices are limitless. But, as you can see in the graphic below, representation is harder to find for children of color. Even when families do find children’s books featuring Black characters, many times they are historical books rather than every day books.
It’s important to Wagler that books featuring Black characters aren’t relegated to Black History Month. “The history is important, but it’s also important that we have books where [diverse characters] are doing every day, fun things. Kids need different varieties of stories…If everything that you see is the story of somebody else, you don’t feel important. Seeing someone who looks like you, in a variety of places, centers you as someone who’s important.”
Reading racially diverse books also benefit white children, who often are not only segregated in their schools, neighborhoods, and activities, but segregated in their media as well. White children can grow their empathy and understanding by reading diverse books.
So where can parents and caregivers find books featuring characters of color?
The Seattle Public Library is a fantastic resource. Librarians across the system have compiled lists for specific needs. Here are some that Will Wagler shared:
There are many more lists as well! Go to the Seattle Public Library catalog, enter key words into the search box and select “list” in the “Search By” drop-down menu. I searched “Asian American Children’s book” and came up with over 200 results!
Speaking to a children’s librarian in person is also a great way to get some recommendations. “The more specific you can be, the better.” Wagler explained. For example, if you can go to a librarian and say, “I’m looking for potty books featuring mixed race kids,” they’re going to have an easier time pointing you in the right direction. And even if your branch doesn’t have a specific book, you can get books delivered to your branch from anywhere in the Seattle Public Library system. Also helpful are online resources such as the American Indians in Children’s Literature blog and Amazon’s recommendations.
The children’s book industry is behind the times, but the good news is that the more parents are checking out and buying diverse books, the more the industry will wake up to the reality that diverse children’s books are money makers. Taking action is as easy as checking out a book at your local library.