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Three Reasons Why Everybody Benefits from More Diverse Children’s Books

By Roxana Barillas

Alfonso, age four, had never willingly visited the library at his early-learning center. But one morning Alfonso’s teacher had something new to show her class — a brand-new collection of children’s books about Latino culture and history. Later that day, instead of going to the playground during his free play period, Alfonso headed straight to the library, excitedly pointing out a book about the Mexican folktale La Llorona to his friends.

We know, and every study confirms, that strong reading skills are critical to a child’s success in school, impacting everything from English class to their performance in math. But kids won’t simply take to reading just because they’re told to. They need a way in. For Alfonso, seeing a book about something familiar — something that reflected his life experience — was all it took to get him excited about reading.

In the United States, the traditional market for book buyers has been the top 10 percent of the socioeconomic strata. Which means most authors, characters and stories that are published reflect the lives of affluent white families.

For decades, publishing insiders have argued that like it or not, this is what the market wants. Books about “other” kinds of children, “other” kinds of families and communities, they say, simply don’t sell.

But they’re wrong. Diverse books can and do sell. We’ve just been looking at the wrong market.

Last year First Book stepped up to the plate, making a commitment through the Clinton Global Initiative America to pioneer a market-driven solution to the lack of diversity in children’s books.

Through our CGI commitment, which has put over 270,000 books into the hands of kids in need, we’ve learned some valuable lessons that we hope will inform the national conversation on children’s literature.

  1. To become readers, kids need to see themselves in books. In a survey last year of more than 2,000 educators from First Book schools and programs, 90 percent of respondents indicated that the children in their programs would be more enthusiastic readers if they had access to books with characters, stories and images that reflect their lives and their communities.
  2. White children need diverse stories, too. This is something not everyone realizes. Seeing only white characters in books can turn children of color off of reading, but it also keeps white children from getting a clear picture of the world they live in.
  3. Multicultural stories empower and inspire teachers.

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