I was reading an article in the New York Times, The Apartheid of Children’s Literature. The article focuses mainly on the US, how only a fraction of children’s books include children of colour. And its not just the children of colour who are affected by this lack…
This apartheid of literature… has two effects.
One is a gap in the much-written-about sense of self-love that comes from recognizing oneself in a text, from the understanding that your life and lives of people like you are worthy of being told, thought about, discussed and even celebrated. Academics and educators talk about self-esteem and self-worth when they think of books in this way, as mirrors that affirm readers’ own identities…
We adults — parents, authors, illustrators and publishers — give them in each book a world of supposedly boundless imagination that can delineate the most ornate geographies, and yet too often today’s books remain blind to the everyday reality of thousands of children. Children of color remain outside the boundaries of imagination. The cartography we create with this literature is flawed.
Perhaps this exclusivity, in which children of color are at best background characters, and more often than not absent, is in fact part of the imaginative aspect of these books. But what it means is that when kids today face the realities of our world, our global economies, our integrations and overlappings, they all do so without a proper map. They are navigating the streets and avenues of their lives with an inadequate, outdated chart, and we wonder why they feel lost. They are threatened by difference, and desperately try to wish the world into some more familiar form. As for children of color, they recognize the boundaries being imposed upon their imaginations, and are certain to imagine themselves well within the borders they are offered, to color themselves inside the lines.
I am writing about this here because regardless of the country we live in, what we give our children to read matter.
My parents never filtered what I read. They did not care, as long as I read stuff, that is what mattered. And there was so much around the house. Besides Sinhala and English literature and stories for me to read. There were Chinese literature magazines which were in Chinese, but I loved the painting and illustrations. I still love Chinese art. Then there were the Soviet Literature magazines. I was reading them when I was ten years old. I still love Russian poetry. Then there were the very affordable Soviet children’s books. I had so many of these with their lovely illustrations. And all this has enriched me as a person. Shown me that there was a wider world outside my immediate one. It paved way to make me a global citizen, not just a Sri Lankan.
What does that mean? Just as we cannot solve certain problems in our communities (villages, towns, let’s say) on our own, countries cannot do it either. That means we need people with a global outlook. Tackling global warming–which threatens all of us–is a good example. All nations must work together to solve the issues. Same with nuclear arms, terrorism and other issues. To do that, we need to raise our kids with that “our world” awareness. They’ll be more primed for the issues they must tackle.
And that begins with children’s books. Let the children’s book you buy reflect the wonderful diversity of our world.