If asked, most children’s book enthusiasts—writers and illustrators, editors and publishers, librarians and teachers, and parents—would surely agree with poet Lucille Clifton that “the literature of America should reflect the children of America.” Yet in 2014, our children’s books don’t reflect our population. Fewer than 10 percent of books published in 2013 featured children of color, according to statistics gathered by the Cooperative Children’s Books Center.
Even more rare are the picture books that depict children making positive connections across racial differences. This absence sends a subtle message to children, as if we were telling them, “It’s okay to only play with children who are like you” or that “children like you don’t play with children who are racially different from you.”
How do we know? Research, led by psychologists Lindsey Cameron in England, Cristina Stefanile in Italy, and Krista Aronson (co-author of this article) in the United States, has indicated that the inclusion of these cross-group images encourages cross-group play.
In a study investigating how kids respond to cross-racial depictions in picture books, Aronson and her colleagues randomly assigned children to two groups. The first group was read books that depicted children from different races playing together and having fun. The second group was read similar books, but with children from only one racial group.
After six weeks, they found that children in the first group reported greater comfort and interest in playing across difference than children in the second group. Perhaps even more importantly, the first group reported that these positive attitudes remained three months after the study was completed.
The fact that reading cross-group books can have such a lasting impact on children’s attitudes is great news. The bad news? In American trade picture books, there are surprisingly few examples of cross-race contact. Aronson and her colleagues created their own such books for the studies.
When we searched for picture books depicting positive interactions between two or more children of different races, we found fewer than a dozen titles. This would suggest that most American children have rarely or never seen a cross-race friendship depicted in a picture book.
Why do books depicting positive cross-race interaction work? Because when we see someone like us doing something with someone different from us, we become more open to doing it ourselves. Psychologists call this vicarious contact. It can ease children’s anxiety about interacting across difference because they have seen that it’s really fun. It also expands their thinking about the group they belong to. After reading, children think, “People like me play with people who are different from me.”
According to Aronson, research suggests an effective cross-group book must
- Depict children who are recognizably different from each other engaging in normal, everyday activities that readers can relate to;
- Portray the characters doing something positive together and having something in common; and
- Demonstrate that everyone is included as an equal partner in the activities. Stories between adults and children or between children with unequal status, such as during segregation, aren’t as effective in stimulating vicarious contact.
Aronson and her colleagues found that books in which differences are evident only in the illustrations—for American trade examples, see Lottie Paris and the Best Place by Angela Johnson (S. & S., 2013) and Yo! Yes? by Chris Raschka (Orchard Books, 1993)—can be just as effective as those in which the differences are emphasized in the story itself, such as Chicken Sunday by Patricia Polacco (Philomel, 1992) and My Friend Jamal by Anna McQuinn (Annick, 2008).
Finally, Aronson found that exposure to at least six cross-group books is optimal. To maximize the impact of these books, she says, educators should initiate a conversation with students with these key talking points:
- Emphasize that the kids are having fun together.
- Help students recognize what the characters have in common. Are they book lovers or dancers? Dinosaur or space enthusiasts? Basketball players or superheroes?
- Consider pointing out differences among the characters. However, racial and cultural differences, whether or not they are referred to in the text, don’t have to be emphasized in discussion in order for the books to be effective.
- Impress upon children that the characters are connected in a positive way. That “friends” is another group category that they both belong to.
Imagine the impact of our libraries full of picture books about the joys of friendship among characters of different races. Now that there is research demonstrating how effective these stories are, let us work to get books like these into the hands of every child in America.
Krista Maywalt Aronson, Ph.D. is a professor at Bates College in Lewiston, ME. Her research and teaching focus on the development of intercultural competence, or the ability to interact effectively across all types of difference, an increasingly important skill in the national and global marketplace.
Anne Sibley O’Brien is the illustrator of the cross-group friendship book Jamaica’s Find (Houghton Mifflin, 1986) by Juanita Havill, along with 30 other multiracial books, of which she wrote 14. She blogs on race, culture and children’s books at Coloring Between the Lines and received the 2013 lifetime achievement Katahdin Award from the Maine Library Association.