Children's Books: Still an All-White World?

Nancy Larrick’s landmark 1965 study on race and children’s books was supposed to have been a wake-up call. Not much has changed.
SLJ Diversity -web_eyebrow Illustration by Christopher Myers

Illustration by Christopher Myers

  On March 15, 2014, the New York Times published two op-ed pieces, one by author Walter Dean Myers and the other by his son, author-illustrator Christopher Myers, both asking, “Where are the people of color in children’s books?” It’s not the first time the question has been asked. It’s not even the first time Walter Dean Myers, a former National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, has asked it. Almost 30 years earlier, he had raised the same issue in an op-ed piece, “I Actually Thought We Would Revolutionize the Industry,” published in the Times on November 9, 1986.

Twenty years earlier, Nancy Larrick had posed the same question in the September 11, 1965 issue of The Saturday Review. Her article, “The All-White World of Children’s Books,” outlined the problem by providing statistics. Larrick, an educator and founder of the International Reading Association, examined 5,206 children’s books produced by 63 publishers from 1962 through 1964, and found that only 349 of them, or 6.4 percent, included one or more blacks in the illustrations. Of these, 60 percent were set outside the United States or took place before World War II, which meant that only four-fifths of one percent of the children’s trade books published in the U.S. from 1962 to 1964 were about contemporary African Americans.

Larrick’s study was a wake-up call for the publishing industry, and in the years that followed its publication, we began to see actual change. It was a hopeful era, so aptly described by Myers in “We Actually Thought We Would Revolutionize the Industry.” It was a time that saw the first books by African-American authors and illustrators, including powerhouses such as Virginia Hamilton, John Steptoe, Jerry Pinkney, Tom Feelings, Leo and Diane Dillon, Ashley Bryan, Mildred D. Taylor, and Myers himself.

By 1984, Myers noted, the number of books about the black experience had plummeted. This was about the time the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison started to track statistics that documented books by black authors, and our numbers backed this up. In 1985, there were just 18 such books and in 1986, there were 18 again. Since then, the number increased a bit each year until it reached 94 in 1992. And then it appears to have hit some sort of glass ceiling, set at 100. It’s as if there’s some sort of unwritten rule that there can be no more than 100 books published in any given year by black authors and illustrators. That’s about three percent of the total number of books.


In the meantime, where are the new black authors and illustrators? Where is the next Virginia Hamilton? Or the next Tom Feelings? How do publishers expect to find them? If the next John Steptoe is out there somewhere, and he enters a bookstore or library to see what’s there, will he feel at all encouraged? Will he be led to believe that there might be a place for his own work on the shelves? This is not to say that there haven’t been talented young black artists and writers published more recently. But how many of them are sons and daughters of the first generation of black artists and writers for children? Is it not enough for Donald Crews, Jerry Pinkney, Virginia Hamilton, and Walter Dean Myers to create books for children? Are they also expected to create the children who will grow up to take their places as the next generation of black authors and illustrators?

Because the latest New York Times essays were accompanied by a link to the CCBC’s statistics, we got a lot of questions. Some came from researchers with an academic interest in the subject matter. Some parents asked us for book recommendations. About half of the questions came from people who wanted to know if we also counted the number of books with animal characters. This was actually first posed in July 2013 by Horn Book editor-in-chief Roger Sutton on his blog “Read Roger.” “I want to know what percentage of children’s books are in the first place about people (as opposed to talking rabbits or [creatures from] outer space, for example). Things may look worse than they are,” he wrote.

So that summer, I counted. Although it may seem like there are a whole lot of animal characters populating children’s books, there really weren’t as many as even I thought. Most of them were in picture books, but those titles made up only about 23 percent of the 2013 books CCBC received. Nearly half of the books were fiction, both middle grade and young adult. As of July 11, we had received 1,509 trade books published in 2013. I found that 1,183 (78.3 percent) were about human beings. And just 124 of those (10.5 percent) featured a person of color. And that also means that 1,059 of the books about humankind (89.5 percent) are about white people.

The numbers tell us that in the 50 years since Larrick first documented the all-white world of kids’ books, we’ve made some progress, but children’s literature still represents a mostly white world in a real one that’s becoming increasingly diverse. Why has change come so slowly? What are the barriers? And can anything be done to diversify children’s books?

A lot of people are quick to blame the publishing industry. But publishers can’t just make manuscripts magically appear. So how did they do it in the 1960s and 1970s, when we saw such a sudden growth in multicultural books, African-American literature in particular? What did they have then that we don’t have now? They had the Council on Interracial Books for Children, for one thing. Much as the Council was viewed then—and now—as a thorn in the side of publishing (a CIBC founder, Elinor Sinnette, was quoted in The Saturday Review as saying “Publishers have participated in a cultural lobotomy”), it deserves credit for helping to foster much-needed diversity in children’s literature. CIBC’s annual contests for unpublished writers of color launched the careers of Walter Dean Myers, Sharon Bell Mathis, Kristin Hunter, and Mildred D. Taylor, and their regular “Art Directors: Take Note” column brought visibility to new illustrators such as Donald Crews, Leo and Diane Dillon, and Pat Cummings.

A few publishers have tried their own contests for unpublished authors of color, but the only one that’s still around is Lee & Low’s New Voices Award, recently joined by the New Visions Award for their imprint Tu Books. Literary agent Barry Goldblatt recently partnered with the Vermont College of Fine Arts to launch the Angela Johnson Scholarship for writers of color. That’s the sort of support and mentoring that needs to happen, and Goldblatt is demonstrating that the efforts of one person can make a difference.

The other thing multicultural literature had going for it in the ’60s was a strong library market. The demand we see today comes mostly from teachers and librarians, trying to meet the needs of the diverse populations they serve. In his 1986 essay, Myers stated: “The libraries were the major markets for black children’s books, and when they began to suffer cutbacks it was books on the black experience that were affected most.” And we all know that budgets, particularly among schools, make it an ongoing challenge to meet these needs.

The most obvious solution for increasing diversity in children’s books is to bolster that library funding so that we have a bigger impact on the market. That is, of course, easier said than done.

But one thing that librarians can do is to buy the books that are out there now. Read them. Know them well enough that they become the go-to books when making recommendations or creating bibliographies. Share them with children of all kinds, not just because they are multicultural, but because they are good books.

The children’s book field is full of smart, committed people in editing and in marketing, but publishing is still a business, and they have to consider the bottom line. Right now the lion’s share of the market goes to bookstores, and that means the big-box bricks-and-mortar outlets that are lapping up whatever is popular.

The buyers at Barnes & Noble have a lot of power. They can have an impact on what gets published and what jacket art looks like. And more than one publisher has told me that they’ve heard Barnes & Noble buyers say that black books don’t sell. And then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: How can the books sell if they are not on the shelves?

Again it comes back to buying the books. I often quote the poet Alexis DeVeaux who once said “Buying a book is a political act.” That has never been truer than it is today. If we want to see change, if we want to see more diversity in literature, we have to buy the books. Buy them for our schools, for our libraries, for our families, for our friends. We must be the agents of change. Otherwise, we are all participants in the “cultural lobotomy.” And it won’t be technology that threatens the very existence of books. It’ll be their complete and utter irrelevance in the real world that never was and never will be all white.

Horning-Kathleen_ContribKathleen T. Horning ( is director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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I see that people are starved for diversity in literature instead of the same old Mary-Sue and Gary-Stu.

Posted : Apr 21, 2015 02:01

Pamela E. Cash

Thank you for a great article. I am also an African American author of a diverse science fiction book series for teens and young adults. I wrote this series because of my love for science fiction and the lack of diversity. I hope that your readers will take a look at my series. If we don't buy diverse books we won't see them. Book Intro: There are 6 clans across the world with supernatural powers-Africa, Asia, Europe, South American, North America and Australia. Chausiku has just discovered that her family is one of them...and her mother's killer is looking for her.

Posted : Mar 20, 2015 03:24

Dr. Dionne Nichols

As a newly published African American author, I appreciate that the awareness and information has been brought to the forefront. Both of my children's' books depicts African American characters and teaches children about character building and promotes the love of reading/literacy. The titles are: The Adventures of Ariel and Ron and The Amazing World of Emyri. Both books are available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and Goose River Press. My goal is to have all children of all races enjoy my books and implement the lessons learned from the short stories into their everyday lives.

Posted : Oct 11, 2014 07:28


Thank you for this! I started writing because of this issue. Children want to read books with characters who look like them. I've just published my children's picture book with a very diverse cast of characters. I want children to say, hey, that looks like me! It's called The Toothless Tooth Fairy. I hope to see tons of changes. I will continue to do my part.

Posted : Aug 02, 2014 07:55

Anne Sibley O'Brien

Glad to see the response to the question on animals vs. people in books, so we have reliable numbers on which to base the discussion. But sad (though not surprised) to see confirmation that only 10% of books about people feature characters of color. We can continue to talk and talk about the reasons why, but as you note, the solution is really simple: Buy. Diverse. Books. The titles we have will survive, perhaps even thrive, and a market will be created for the books our children - all our children - need.

Posted : May 14, 2014 09:08


As a middle school librarian, I constantly get requests from students with characters "who look like me." Every time I see an appropriate middle school or intermediate book with characters who are not white, I buy it for the library. I tell my students almost daily that if they have any writing talent at all they can make a living as a writer of middle school books because there are so few good books with children of color in them. I tell them to just "write what you know" and others will want to read it. I would like to see more books with diverse characters who are a positive influence and who want to succeed in life. Most of my students who are seeking these books are children who are looking for direction. They are tired of the Bluford type characters and want something more substantial.

Posted : May 12, 2014 07:52

Sheila Kelly Welch

Thank you, for this article and the others in SLJ's Diversity Issue. This topic is of great interest to me. Although my husband and I are white, our seven children are not. It was a challenge to find books with characters that looked like our kids -- especially back before the Internet. I remember being thrilled to find Keat's Peter and can still hear our oldest son, "reading" those books to himself when he was three or four. I didn't know at the time that the author/illustrator was white. While I think it's important for there to be books written and illustrated by people of all races and backgrounds, readers, especially young children, are not always tuned in to this aspect of diversity. As an author and illustrator, I'm aware of the difficulties of creating something outside one's own experience. Yet authors don't hesitate to write historical fiction or fantasy. I think diversity can be achieved -- or, at least, increased -- by welcoming new voices and by encouraging old ones to broaden their range. I may be a white woman, but I can draw black kids. In fact, illustrators can show more children wearing glasses, using wheelchairs, and having various skin tones. Eventually the books on the shelves in libraries and classrooms could be just as diverse as the children who fill those places.

Posted : May 09, 2014 03:37

Clarence Rector

Interesting article considering that my daughter and I (we are African Americans) have written two children's books together. Our first book, "I'm not a Vampire, I just suck my thumb", has a lead character that appears to be white. It was not our intention for the character to be either white or black. We didn't give our illustrator any direction regarding skin color. This book is targeted to those parents seeking assistance with stopping thumb sucking. In our second book, "Hey Zoo Animals, Wake up Already", we gave the illustrator direction regarding skin color. We wanted the lead characters to be black. The interesting thing is that we thought this particular book would easily outsell our first book because the target audience is bigger. We figured the zoo animals audience would dwarf the "thumb sucking" audience. However, our first book, continues to generate sales while our zoo book gets sporadic sales. Could it be that buyers are not interested in it because of the African American characters? Or The "thumb sucking" book is a great niche and the "zoo book" market is crowded and tough. Or The book is not any good. I'm not sure of the answer but I just find it hard to believe that it is because of the African American characters. I really don't believe that is the case but when you read these types of articles, it makes you wonder. You can check them both out below. Hey Zoo Animals! Wake up Already! I'm not a Vampire, I just suck my thumb.

Posted : May 06, 2014 05:31

PJ LaRue

Thank you for this column. It is imperative that we teach cultural diversity to young children while their minds are still open to the concepts. During May 2014, I will be publishing a children's book with diverse characters. It does not get into the varieties of culture, but the pictures make it clear that the characters are not all Caucasians with blonde hair and blue eyes. I would love to have feedback about the characters. You can see them at my website

Posted : May 05, 2014 12:23

Maria Simon

Thank you Kathleen. I encourage everyone to talk to your public and school librarians. Donate to the collection, ask them to buy more and keep them circulating.

Posted : May 03, 2014 07:16


Very well said! All the hashtags in the world (and tweeting at people who already think the same way you do) won't alter the fact that sales drive change. Period. End of discussion. Skip the deep thoughts on Twitter and go buy a book that exemplifies diversity.

Posted : May 02, 2014 01:31

Monique A. Williams

I grew up seeing very few Black characters in fiction and had to gravitate to the Judy Blume's and Ann M. Martin's for the tokens. I wrote Awesome Blossom as a way to speak to those children who want and deserve to read a book about a Black girl, a book centered on a bright, funny, sometimes mean Black girl. Hopefully the audience votes with their dollars so that it's not as great an anomaly.

Posted : May 01, 2014 08:31



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