Arts + Culture

Survey Finds Nearly 80% of U.S. Adults Believe Multicultural Picture Books Are Important for Children

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Nearly eight in ten (78%) U.S. adults believe that it is important for children to be exposed to picture books that feature main characters of various ethnicities or races—but one-third (33%) report that it is difficult to find such books, according to a recent survey that was commissioned by The Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to enhancing the love of reading and learning in all children.

The telephone survey, conducted in April by Harris Interactive on behalf of The Ezra Jack Keats Foundation surveyed 1,001 U.S. adults and found that nearly three-quarters of parents (73%) and half of all adults (49%) have purchased a children’s picture book with a protagonist of a different race or ethnicity than the child who will be reading the book. Whereas, only 10% consider it important to match the race or ethnicity of the main character of a picture book to the race or ethnicity of the child who will be receiving the book.

“It’s reassuring that so many adults recognize the value in exposing children to books that portray people of all colors and ethnicities,” says Deborah Pope, Executive Director of The Ezra Jack Keats Foundation. “What’s disheartening though is that, even today, these books are few and far between,” adds Pope, who notes that only 9% of 3,400 books published in 2010 for children and teens had significant minority content.*

As the “Granddaddy of Diversity,” the late Ezra Jack Keats became the first children’s picture book author and illustrator to bring children of color to mainstream literature when his Caldecott Award winning book, The Snowy Day, featured an African-American child as the lead character. The Foundation decided to take the pulse of Americans on the topic in honor of the book’s 50th anniversary.

“Young children learn by what they see—they need to have quality books that show what joins us rather than what separates us. I’d like to encourage the children’s publishing industry to offer more books that portray people of all colors and ethnicities,” says Pope.

How Far Have We Come?

When asked how far racial and ethnic diversity in children’s picture books has come in the past 50 years, a majority of U.S. adults feel there is more that can be done (made some progress—36%, have a long way to go—16%).

Interestingly, compared with the 33% of all U.S. adults who reported that it is hard to find books featuring main characters of various ethnicities or races, those in the South found it most difficult (42%) followed by those in the Northeast (30%), West (28%) and Midwest (27%).

Broken down by ethnicity and race, 76% of white adults believe that it is important for children to be exposed to picture books that feature main characters of various ethnicities or races, compared to 82% of Hispanics, 85% of African-Americans, and 96% of other minorities. Further, 30% of whites, 39% of other minorities, 42% of Hispanics, and 47% of African-Americans reported it difficult to find diversity in children’s books.**

Advice for Selecting Children’s Picture Books

When asked which factors they consider when selecting a children’s picture book, adults cited interesting stories (62%) and important lessons (61%) as high on the list followed by eye-catching pictures (41%).

“At the end of the day, people just want children to be exposed to good books,” says Pope. “I encourage them to look for children’s picture books that promote universal experiences and help expand the definition of what it means to be a child in a world with endless possibilities.”

Following are Pope’s suggestions for choosing picture books of quality that will raise a child’s awareness of diversity:

  • Build a diverse home library. Take a look at the books on your child’s shelves and decide how you’d like to balance the images of the children your child will see there.
  • Look for books that walk the walk. There are many books that teach diversity as an issue or highlight the holidays of different ethnic groups. But it is also important to expose your child to books that feature children of different races or ethnicities doing everyday things — talking about what they want to be when they grow up, having an adventure, or playing in the snow like Peter, the main character in The Snowy Day.
  • Make it real. There are many picture books that cloak diversity messages in stories where animals, robots and aliens have human qualities. But children also need to see picture books that illustrate real children of various ethnicities and races all getting along.
  • Ask those “in the know.” Talk to your friends, your children’s teachers and local librarians and ask for their top multicultural choices. Also, search online for children’s book awards that focus on promoting good books with characters of different backgrounds for recommendations.
  • Carry the diversity message forward. If your child plays with dolls, make sure their collection includes different races and ethnicities too.