• A new study from Edith Cowan University finds that just five per cent of children’s books contained on-Caucasian characters. (Blend Images/Getty Images)
Only a fraction of kid’s picture books feature non-white characters - and experts say this needs to change.
By
Alana Schetzer

4 Oct 2017 - 4:54 PM  UPDATED 4 Oct 2017 - 4:57 PM

“All the stories that we absorb from a young age teach us about our place in the world, and what the world is,” acclaimed Australian author, Ambelin Kwaymullina tells SBS. “Books teach us at a young age what the world is, and our world is in fact diverse.”

Kwaymullina believes ensuring that children’s books promote and reflect the full spectrum of humanity’s diversity - including race, gender, religion and culture - is essential for ensuring that kids got a realistic view of what the world is.

Kwaymullina has written five books, including young adult fiction and a picture book, and is well regarded for her work promoting Indigenous stories and literature. She is also a strong advocate for promoting diverse voices and ensuring that children are exposed to different people, from different backgrounds, telling different stories.

“The world is not entirely comprised of white people and it doesn’t set these kids up well to interact with children and adults who come from different backgrounds.”

“It gives them a poor perspective on what the world is and who is part of it,” she says. “The world is not entirely comprised of white people and it doesn’t set these kids up well to interact with children and adults who come from different backgrounds.”

Research from across the world has universally suggests that diversity in children’s books is healthy, as well as essential in teaching children the importance of respecting themselves and people from other cultures.

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This issue was recently explored in a new study from Edith Cowan University, which revealed that just five per cent of children’s books contained non-Caucasian characters.

Five Perth child care centres were the source of the study.

Researchers studied 2377 books, of which 1018 contained human characters. From those books, the racial breakdown was:

  • 778 contained characters of one race
  • 750 were Caucasian
  • 28 were from another race
  • 240 contained characters of more than one race
  • 112 were mostly Caucasian
  • 128 contained characters from different races

And for some of the non-white characters portrayed, they tended to be minor characters and dressed in traditional cultural dress, not as part of contemporary society.

Lead researcher Helen Adam says: “For example American Indian characters were often portrayed wearing a traditional head dress and Aboriginal characters were pictured playing didgeridoos and dressed in a semi-naked state”.

Kwaymullina adds the use of traditional dress was enforcing already damaging stereotypes.

“This sends a message of Aboriginal kids or kids from other diverse backgrounds that the world is not for them, that hope and joy and all the things that you can experience in this world is not for them, that these things are for white people."

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“Children deserve to see themselves represented in the media and in storybooks and fairytales. They need to know that they aren’t alone.”

The findings were similar to another study of children’s books in the United States, which just 88 out of 4500 titles were written or illustrated by African-Americans.

Kwaymullina says that it’s essential for young children to be exposed to all people who make up their community, not just a select few. She says the best way to address this diversity gap is for Australia’s major publishing houses to take on more diverse authors who can tell their own stories.

“This is a privilege problem and it won’t be solved by having more privileged people writing on behalf of more marginalised people. We need more voices from Indigenous people and people of colour.”

“As an Aboriginal author, I get asked all the time where people can find books written by Aboriginal people. They are out there, but it’s far more likely that books written by Aboriginal people or people of colour will be published by small publishers, which means that they’re harder to find.

“The books that dominate the shelves tend to be from the big publishers, so child care centres and kindergartens have to work a bit harder to find these titles.”

Kwaymullina urges publishers to take on writers from diverse backgrounds, adding that they are best placed to tell stories about their own culture’s experiences.

“This is a privilege problem and it won’t be solved by having more privileged people writing on behalf of more marginalised people. We need more voices from Indigenous people and people of colour.”

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