Posted on January 13, 2021

Rooting Out Racism in Children’s Books

Lindsay Perez Huber, The Conversation, January 5, 2021

Ten years ago, I sat down with my then 8-year-old daughter to read a book before bedtime. The book was sort of a modern-day “boy who cried wolf” story, only it was about a little girl named Lucy who had a bad habit of telling lies.

In the story, Lucy borrowed her friend Paul’s bike and crashed it. Lucy lied to Paul, telling him “a bandit” jumped in her path and caused the crash. I saw the image and stopped reading. I was stunned. The image on the page was the racist stereotype of the “Mexican bandit” wearing a serape, sombrero and sandals.

By training, I am a critical race theorist in education who understands that racism is ingrained into the fabric of our society in general, and in educational institutions in particular. One area of my research is about how people of color experience racial microaggressions, which are often subtle but significant attacks – verbal or nonverbal. They can take on many forms, such as remarks about one’s identity, and occur because of institutionalized racism.


In 2015 – when I began this research – there were 85 books published in the U.S. that included Latinx characters from the 3,200 children’s books the center received that year. That’s about 2.5% of the total, whereas Latinx kids represent about 1 in 4 school children in the U.S.

Since then, there has been an upward trend for all ethnic or racial groups. However, books written by and about people of color remain a very small proportion of books published each year. The most recent CCBC data reports books with Latinx characters were about 6% of the more than 4,000 children’s books the center received in 2019.

The lack of representation of communities of color in children’s books is another longstanding problem – one that has persisted since at least the 1920s when renowned sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois first expressed his concerns about anti-Black racism in children’s books. Books can serve as important tools for children to develop their own sense of self and identity. When children of color do not see themselves in the books they read, this sends the message that they and their communities are not important.

In a study published in 2020, my colleagues and I used critical race theory to develop a rubric to critically analyze racial representations in children’s books. Drawing from this research, here are five questions to consider when choosing books about people of color:

1. What roles do the characters of color play?

It is important to see people of color represented in a wide array of characters to avoid falling into racist tropes and stereotypes. When characters of color are present, it is important to recognize the position they play in the story line. Children should have the opportunity to see characters of color as main characters, central to the stories they read.


2. Does the book contain racial stereotypes?

Research has found that dominant perspectives of communities of color are often guided by views that they are culturally deficient. These deficit views often blame people of color for the social inequities they face, such as low educational attainment or poverty.

In my view, it is important to identify whether stories about people of color perpetuate or challenge these views.


3. Are characters represented in culturally authentic ways?


4. Do the books include the bigger picture?

Effective storytelling about people of color should provide a broader historical, social, political and other context. This gives children the ability to understand how everyday experiences exist within the larger society.


5. Who has power and agency in the story?

There are many vantage points from which a story can be told. When a book tells a story through the eyes of a character of color, there is a power assigned to the character in the telling of their own story. This strategy gives the character agency to construct the narrative, and to resolve the ending. {snip}