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Children and Diverse Literature

Various children's books published by Lee & Low

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"For every reader, a book," says Zetta Elliot. Elliot writes children's books, and she's talking about a principle of library science. Every single reader needs a book to represent and reflect their own experiences. While this principle exists, it's not always easy for children of color, disabled children, or children who identify as LGBT to find stories they can relate to. 
 
I met Elliot at the Brooklyn Public Library. She told me as a kid she couldn't find books that reflected her own black heritage. But as she displays the 23 books she's written on the table where we sit, the faces on the covers show she writes books for black children, about black children. 
 
"You know I have a novel set in Prospect Park across the street, because the first major battle of the Revolutionary War was fought there. And then I have novels set in Weeksville, which was the second largest freed black community in the United States before the Civil War. And I write about the African burial ground just across the bridge," Elliot said
 
A study by Lee & Low books, a publishing company whose mission is to showcase diverse authors and stories, found that 89% of the publishing industry is white. And the company's publicity director, Hannah Ehrlich, says this poses a problem.
 
"When you have mostly a white work force on the other end, and you have editors who are looking for manuscripts that resonate with them they tend to gravitate towards manuscripts by people who have similar experiences as them," Ehrlich said.
 
So because people of color don't have much of a stake in the publishing industry, their stories are left untold. I wanted to know how a parent feels about the lack of diversity in kid's books. So, I went to a bilingual book reading at the Inwood Public Library in upper Manhattan.
 
At the book reading, parents and children gathered in a circle to sing the French nursery rhyme "Frere Jacques." Some of the kids know every word, while others just dance along. The group switches to English, and the ensemble is no better, but that's not the point. Here, librarians read stories and sing songs in two languages to expose the children to different cultures. And Narda Duchiene brings her three-year-old daughter, Amelie, to story time every week.
 
"We've been coming to the library ever since she was three months old, and we would listen to stories that were led by the librarian. And even if she was napping we would sit there and listen. It was very important for me to expose her to books and reading at such a young age," Duchiene.
 
Duchiene is first generation Haitian-American, and her husband is first generation Chinese-American. She wants Amelie to be able to read stories where the characters are biracial, just like her. 
 
"Because this is New York, and this is the world we live in. She's been riding the subway since she was a baby, and it's very important for her to be exposed to everything and to see everything. To see mixed families, to see mixed couples, it's the world we live in," Duchiene said.
 
But as long as Amelie keeps reading, her mom is happy. 
 
"Who's your favorite character?" Duchiene asks her daughter.
 
"Peppa Pig!" Amelie says.