The earliest “children’s literature,” produced specifically for children, is concerned with morality. Our readings this week and online slideshow for The Joy of Children’s Literature reproduce “hornbooks” that teach Christian prayer alongside the alphabet.
Denise Johnson attributes this emphasis to an extremely high mortality rate among infants and young children (12). She contrasts the Puritan belief, prevalent at the time, that children were subject to original sin, and thus eternal damnation, to the emerging “blank tablet” view of children at the end of the 17th Century.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, children’s literature emerged as an industry. The color printing press made it possible to produce lavish illustrations.
Two authors whose legacies are honored each year with the American Library Association’s youth media awards produced their work at this time: John Newbery wrote primarily to entertain (Johnson 12) instead of promoting morality, while Randolph Caldecott’s picture-book illustrations “conveyed action, joy, and humor.”
Johnson observes that controversial or sensitive topics didn’t emerge until the 1960s and the characters in children’s literature remained mostly white (14). “The emergence of contemporary authors such as Judy Blume, Eve Bunting, Katherine Patterson, and Betsy Byars introduced important issues such as divorce, death, abuse, and homelessness.”
In her 2011 Reading Rockets interview, Patterson raises an interesting point about “hope” in children’s books:
“If you write a book and then tack hope on at the end there’s something really wrong with that. You write out of yourself. If you’re a person of hope, then there’s going to be hope in your book. If you have no hope as a person, then probably that will be reflected in your book.”Johnson highlights several authors and illustrators of books with multicultural characters, but recent news articles and studies suggest a continuing lack of diversity among characters in children’s books.
The Cooperative Children’s Book Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison, noted that among titles it received in 2012, less than 8 percent of those books were by or about people of color.
I predict that book publishing will yield to public demand for greater multicultural perspectives. The #WeNeedDiverseBooks social media campaign launched this year in response to the convening of only white men on a panel of children’s book “luminaries.” The campaign asked people to post their reasons, with the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag, on a variety of social platforms.
During my viewing today of Twitter activity around #WeNeedDiverseBooks, I noticed at least two publishers using the hashtag to promote multicultural offerings. Sadly, I also saw reference to an abusive backlash toward one person who argued this need.
To the extent that our experiences are specific to our membership in a particular group, I think we’ll see more of these issues represented in children’s books. But I think we’ll also see multicultural characters wrestling with issues that reflect our common membership in the human race.