Girl reading book at bookstore

(Photo by Chinnapong on Shutterstock)

CHICAGO — Children’s literature in the U.S. is still dominated by White, male characters, according to a recent study from the University of Chicago. Researchers say ethnic minorities continue to be underrepresented in kids’ books. Moreover, the study finds that the child characters in these books are frequently depicted with lighter skin tones for no clear editorial reason at all.

Books, of course, are a key part of growing up and child development. They teach us about the world, its people, and our place in it. A big part of this happens both at home and at school for kids. Childhood novels transmit messages about identity and, in many instances, provide examples of what is normal in society and children’s places within a community.

Around the middle of the last century, however, many teachers and parents began expressing concerns over the lack of Black and Brown (not to mention disabled, queer, or even divorced) characters in children’s literature. Since then, writers, publishers, and librarians have all been encouraged to put more diverse characters front and center.

The study, published in The Quarterly Journal of Economics, set out to gauge the success of such efforts.

Researchers developed and applied tools from the fields of computer vision and natural language processing in order to measure representation levels of skin color, race, gender, and age in the images and text of influential children’s books most likely to be found in classrooms, libraries, and kids’ homes over the past century. The AI tools utilized by study authors facilitated a more scalable and systematic measurement than what would have been possible via the more traditional approach to content analysis, which has historically been performed by hand using human coders. Data assessed for this study also encompassed kids’ books recognized by awards featured by the Association for Library Service to Children since the 1920s.

Researchers’ efforts revealed persistent underrepresentation of Black and Latinx people in the most influential books, in comparison to their population shares. However, it’s important to note that the representation of Black individuals has increased somewhat over time. On a broader level, the study reports that among the mainstream collection of children’s books published between 1923 and 2019, only two percent of characters pictured were Black (despite making up 13.6% of the U.S. population) and only four percent were Latinx (19% in reality).

African-American girl reading a book at her desk
Young girls, especially those of color, may struggle to find many children’s books where they can relate to the characters. (Photo by Tatiana Buzmakova on Shutterstock)

Regarding gender, while there are more female characters in modern children’s books than in the past, women still appear less often in text than in images. This indicates greater symbolic inclusion in pictures than substantive inclusion in stories.

Curiously, researchers also note that tons of children’s books depict children with a lighter skin color than their adult counterparts – despite there being no biological foundation for such skin color variations.

Mainstream books, or works that receive recognition for their literary or artistic value without explicit intention to highlight an identity group (the Newbery and Caldecott awards, for example), tend to be a bit cheaper than other books that received recognition for highlighting a specific identity group. These books sold for an average $7.66, while books with greater diversity cost an average of $9.34.

“The process of education transmits not only the values of society, but also whose space it is,” says Anjali Adukia, the paper’s lead author, in a media release. “The optimal level of representation is a philosophical question, but representation can be measured and improved upon based on the goals of the curator in question. Computational tools can increase understanding of the messages being sent in the images and text of the books we give our children, which can then help efforts to systematically address structural inequities.”

About John Anderer

Born blue in the face, John has been writing professionally for over a decade and covering the latest scientific research for StudyFinds since 2019. His work has been featured by Business Insider, Eat This Not That!, MSN, Ladders, and Yahoo!

Studies and abstracts can be confusing and awkwardly worded. He prides himself on making such content easy to read, understand, and apply to one’s everyday life.

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