Board books, the durable, glossy, washable, chewable, spit-on-able cardboard books our youngest readers love, often serve as the first insight into a world beyond oneself. The captivating visual images introduce infants and toddlers to lands beyond their own, people both comfortable and unfamiliar, and a visual landscape entirely new to them.
These board books have the power to inspire, comfort, and engage little ones. They can bring them on adventures, introduce them to characters they’ll grow to love, and familiarize them with important concepts. Board books teach children how to read before eventually passing the torch to picture books, short stories with chunky letters, and the saving grace of a fat novel at a family reunion. New worlds unfold through watercolors and text, characters are introduced and the lessons they learn are remembered forever, and the messages transmitted can uplift, support, and liberate readers.
So what does it mean if all of these protagonists, all of these worlds, are white? What does it say to a reader if they cannot find a book with a main character that looks like them? What does it say if they are able to find a book with a main character that looks like them, but the depiction is stereotypical or tokenizing? What kind of a world are children invited to imagine?
In a study by Sandra Hughes-Hassell and Ernie J. Cox, they found that nearly 60% of the board books published between 2003 and 2008 featured only white people while only 5.5% featured only people of color. The lack of racial and ethnic inclusion in children’s literature doesn’t stop at board books, and in fact about 74% of the children’s books published in 2015 featured only white protagonists or important characters. These statistics betray a bias towards white characters, and in turn white readers and white families.
Excluding children of color from board books and children’s literature at a time when about half of the children in the U.S are children of color sends the message that their experiences, bodies, and lives aren’t important or valuable enough to be written about. Young children developing self-concept, how they see themselves, and self-esteem, how they value themselves, are at a critical point which can be either supported by positive reflections of people that look like them in the literature or the saturation of mass media’s offensive stereotypes.
Racially and ethnically diverse representation in children’s literature isn’t just important for children of color; allowing white children to see only themselves reflected in children’s literature reinforces a misplaced sense of superiority. Children living in a diverse world should see that reflected in the books they read and the images they encounter.
Check out these board books that feature children of color as the main characters and create a better representation of everyone who makes this world special into your bookcase!
Whose Toes are Those? by Jabari Asim, illustrated by LeUyen Pham
Little You by Richard Van Camp, illustrated by Julie Flett
Padmini is Powerful by Amy Maranville, illustrated by Tim Palin
Please, Baby, Please by Spike Lee, Tonya Lewis Lee illustrated by Kadir Nelson
I Know a Lot! by Stephen Krensky, illustrated by Sara Gillingham
Whistle for Willie written and illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats
Pretty Brown Face by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney
andBlack Cowboys, our own board book featuring Max Becher and Andrea Robbins' stunning photographs of contemporary Black Cowboys in the U.S. Learn more about contemporary Black Cowboys here.