A new database catalogues 1,300 children’s books about people of color

Light reading.
Light reading.
Image: Reuters/Esam Omran Al-Fetori
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If you pick up a kid’s book in the United States that’s about a person of color, chances are the character is black. And if the character is black, there’s a decent chance he or she is oppressed.

These are the findings of a team of researchers from Maine’s Bates College. On Sept. 26 the group, led by psychologist Krista Aronson, launched the Diverse BookFinder, a database to help people find books with characters of color. The team aims to categorize all the books published or reprinted in the US since 2002 about people of color. What their research shows is that books about specific groups cluster heavily around specific narratives.

So far Aronson and her team have read and processed 1,300 books, with around 200 backlogged books left. The database can be searched with combinations of tags, like “Vietnamese,” “Muslim,” and “beautiful life” to find books appropriate for different occasions, lessons, and readers. The database also reveals patterns in the ways kids are taught about people of color: Of the 10 books starring a Brazilian kid currently published in the US, half are about soccer. Half the books about Asian or Asian American characters are about culture, like The year of the sheep, about Chinese Zodiac signs, and a quarter are about folklore, like The ghost catcher, a retelling of a myth about a Bengali barber. About 2% of these have characters categorized by the database as “oppressed.”

Among books about black characters, the biggest percentage of books (about a third) are biographical, like Skit-scat raggedy cat, about Ella Fitzgerald. A quarter of books with black protagonists are about oppression, like Granddaddy’s turn, about a black boy seeing his grandfather vote for the first time. About 5% are about folklore.

And a full 60% of books about Latino or Hispanic characters are about food or culture, like What can you do with a rebozo?, about the uses of the woven Mexican shawl.

“These are important, but not rich, and can perpetuate stereotypes that Hispanic children are different or ‘other,'” says Aronson. “The same is true about African American children; it’s a stereotype—that black children are in a struggle or somehow superheroes and ever resilient.”

The Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC), an initiative based out of the University of Madison-Wisconsin, has been tracking representation in children’s books distributed in the US since 1994. Like the Diverse BookFinder, the CCBC finds that African Americans are the most represented in books about people of color, and Latinos disproportionately underrepresented.

Overall, CCBC numbers show that over the last 15 years, there’s been a slight uptick in books for kids about people of color: