Mirrors, Not Windows:
Diversity & Representation in Children’s Literature
Think back to your favorite childhood books. The ones that you would read hours on end during a lunch period or a hot summer day. Books that swept you away to an imaginary world. Got it? Good. Now, why did you enjoy them? Perhaps it was because it had dragons in it or you liked the narration. Or maybe it was because you had a special connection with one of the characters.
The last one was the case for me.
As a child, though, I found it hard to find myself in the books I read. Most of the time, I identified with characters that had the same type of personality as I did. I would pick the brave, independent-but-kind heroine that I wanted to be. But as I began to write stories myself, I realized that it wasn’t enough.
We Need Diverse Books, a non-profit organization dedicated to diversifying children’s literature, has some pretty strong evidence on why:
“Research shows that 11.9% of main characters are Black/African, 1% are Native/First Nations, 5.3% are Latinx, 8.7% are Asian/Asian American, .05% are Pacific Islander, 41.8% are white, and 29.2% are animal/other. Additionally, 3.4% of books have a main character with a disability[,] and 3.1% have a main character who identifies as LGBTQIAP+.”
In other words, the literature children read does not reflect the actual diversity of children who wake up, go to school, play, and grow up in various racial, cultural, socioeconomic, queer, or Disabled communities all over the U.S.
Obviously, this isn’t good.
However, as the publishing industry and authors become more aware and informed about this lack of representation, there has been a slow-but-steady growth in the inclusion of characters from all backgrounds. Take Rick Riordan, an extremely popular and well-known young adult author who penned the widely successful Percy Jackson series. The first trilogy includes largely white characters alongside having disabilities such as ADHD and dyslexia that are portrayed not as weaknesses but strengths. A step in the right direction.
The following books he wrote showed Riordan’s growth in representation with a cast of characters with all sorts of backgrounds, from a vegetarian Cherokee woman who grew up with a single father to a genderfluid character who experienced houselessness. Although these are experiences faced by children and can be relatable for readers, they are not always given attention or written in a thoughtful way. Riordan is one solid example of an author who can grow in their inclusivity.
When I started writing stories, I cited representation as one of the reasons why. I wrote the characters, stories, and experiences that I wanted to read about. It is incredibly important to me that my writing is diverse. In fact, I refuse to write anything other than a story that reflects the world I live in. Now when I plan out my storylines, my characters naturally develop so that they can be diverse and an essential part in the narrative. As I write, I constantly recognize how much I am learning about perspectives that are different from mine and the effect it will have on my readers in the future. I want them to be able to identify with the characters in the work I produce themselves in the work I produce, and I want others to read about experiences that differ from their own. Isn’t that an essential component of the craft of writing anyways?
So sure, you might have written a story with a lack of diversity the first time around. That doesn’t mean you can’t meaningfully include other types of backgrounds the second time. Or better yet, start by incorporating diversity now!
Children need their favorite books to be mirrors not windows.
They need to know that they can be the hero too.