When I was a child of five, one of the first books I read in school was about Dick, Jane and a dog named Spot. They lived in a house with a picket fence on a sunny street with a mother and father named Mr. And Mrs. Little. Dick, Jane, and Spot had many adventures and I loved every one of them. The children didn’t look like me or live in a slum as I did and sometimes, I sensed the gulf of racism and poverty between their world and mine. Still, Dick and Jane showed me a happy life, a secure life and I wanted to be a part of it. Would I have felt better if Dick and Jane were children of a Hispanic mother who lived in poverty? Would I have felt included if their stories were about street gangs, violence and the loneliness of the latchkey child? Maybe. But reading about children unlike me widen my vision. Dick and Jane are passé now, hideously out of fashion and culturally questionable, but they gave me a glimpse of a better existence and I clung to it.
Publishers of children’s books today worry that too many stories continue to be produced by white authors using white children as the central figures. (“Reading Rainbow,” by Dashka Slater, Mother Jones, Sept/Oct, 2016, pg. 57-59.) With the ethnic mix of the country changing, these publishers wonder to whom the market should appeal. Statistically, 77% of book buyers are white. People of color buy fewer books but at a higher rate than their demographics would predict. “Hispanics, for example, were 27% more likely than the average American bookworm to take home a kid’s book.” (Ibid pg. 58) In a way, my mother set the example. She had no money to buy books, but every Saturday she took me to the library where I could bring home as many as I could carry.
We’ve come to a point in the publishing world where the growing cultural diversity demands that white is no longer the default setting for characters. What will constitute a marketable literary rainbow is the looming question.
I’d never dispute the importance of teaching youngsters the value of diversity. Nonetheless, I’m guessing Alice In Wonderland won’t collect dust on the shelf because Alice is English. Where is it written that the central character must look like the reader? As Slater points out, some of the most cherished children’s books are about animals. When young, I loved Babar the elephant or the rabbit, Uncle Wiggily. And I very much believe Winnie the Pooh will always find a space in any child’s library.
The mix of races and lifestyles is changing in our society, yes. And we should be conscious of the fact. But children want good stories. They are more interested in Peter Pan’s Never Never Land, I suspect than the lack of cultural diversity of the world from which he escaped. As for me, though it may no longer be politically correct, I will always cherish Dick, Jane, and Spot.
(First published 12/15/17)