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I never noticed how racist so many children’s books are until I started reading to my kids

What happened to Little Black Sambo? As a white girl growing up in West Virginia in the 1970s, I remember it on my childhood bookshelf. It was on my friends' shelves too. It may also have been in the dentist's office, along with Highlights for Children and Joseph and His Coat of Many Colors.

It was not on the shelves of the local day care, a center run by an entrepreneurial black woman who saw a business opportunity in the droves of young white mothers who were socialized in the 1950s and '60s to be housewives and then dumped into the workforce by the 1970s economy.

I remember the story primarily for its description of the tigers chasing one another round and round a tree until they melt into butter, butter that Sambo's mother uses for a stack of crispy pancakes. In the 35 intervening years, I knew the book had been relegated to the dustbin of racist cultural artifacts, but I didn't remember it well enough to know why.

"You walk into a bookstore and it's a sea of white. It makes you feel very strange about yourself."

The young woman at the bookstore register flinched when I asked for the book and said she couldn't order it for me; Amazon, until recently agnostic on race relations, dropped a copy in a plain brown wrapper on my doorstep. A quick skim revealed illustrations with the minstrel-show aesthetic — bright, white, round eyes, bulging red lips — of "darky" iconography.

Before the package arrived, I had vaguely entertained the notion of reading it to my sons— I hate to waste a book — but a single glance drove the thought from my mind. One thing I hope to teach them, via reading, is sensitivity to other cultures, and this book is an ugly caricature of black history. I set it in a drawer, stuffed under some papers and hidden from my children forever.

It's not just Little Black Sambo: Lots of kids' books are racist, sexist, or culturally insensitive

Here's what happens when you try to recreate your 1979 childhood library: You buy Bread and Jam for Frances, Frog and Toad, Blueberries for Sal, One Morning in Maine, Heidi, The Cricket in Times Square, Lyle Lyle Crocodile, Stuart Little, Babar, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, The Secret Garden, The Little Princess, and the whole Ramona Quimby series. All were treasured books of my childhood, read and reread to me, and then read again as soon as I could read to myself.

Even before I had kids, my primary vision of mothering involved squeezing into an easy chair and sharing these classics with my children. With my own kids, I've patiently endured the Thomas the Tank Engine stage and the My First Farm Book stage (with its implicit threat that there might be more farm books to come). We've finally arrived at the moment in which my 5-year-old son is willing to sit and hear books about something other than machinery. Now, at last, all the pleasures of reading, from mere escapism to language and illustration to a window into other cultures, are at our fingertips.

But a lot of these books, 35 years on, are startlingly racist, sexist, or culturally insensitive. I was enjoying our chapter-a-day of A Cricket in Times Square, for example, until I got to the stereotypical Asian dialect of the cricket-cage seller. I finesse this by simply refusing to read the dialogue in the spirit it's intended — in our house, Sai Fong sounds like a middle-aged woman with a West Virginia accent and pretty good grammar.

The Five Chinese Brothers, a tale of five identical brothers with slits for eyes, illustrated with broad watercolor strokes of yellow, joined Little Black Sambo in the drawer. In The Secret Garden, Mary's maid says to her, "I thought you was a black too," and Mary stamps her foot and says, "You thought I was a native! You dared! You don't know anything about natives! They are not people. ..." I skipped that whole book, setting it on a shelf for later, noting that it would have to be accompanied by an appropriate conversation about colonialism and ugly views of native peoples. Of the very few titles on my childhood bookshelf that featured minority characters, only Corduroy and A Snowy Day have stayed in our rotation.

Even the stories about families — wholesome, all-American families — I now see through a different prism. A large number of the books I read in the '70s and '80s were written in the '50s and '60s. A surprising number equip the mother of the story with an apron and a broom, and confine her activities to the kitchen: In Bread and Jam for Frances, Frances's mother is clad in a ruffled apron, tirelessly preparing all the meals Frances won't eat. Lyle the Crocodile cooks with Mrs. Primm, also in an apron, while Mr. Primm looks on.

Harry the Dirty Dog is tended to by a mistress with a broom, in an apron. Sylvester's mother, also armed with an apron and a broom, stands by the dad in the wing chair. Ramona Quimby's mother begins the series as a housewife in 1955; in the mid-'70s she goes back to work; by the mid-'80s she's pregnant again and quits. (Evidently Mrs. Quimby starts with the problem with no name, transitions to The Second Shift, and finishes with the opt-out revolution.)

Why the lack of diversity in children's literature is damaging

All the mothers in the kitchen and dads in wing chairs present a fantasy world of white, four-person families, so far removed from my own only-child, single-working-mother childhood that I internalized the books (and the era's TV shows) as normal and us as the aberration. This seems to be how many children who don't see themselves represented in the dominant culture respond: Young adult novelist I. W. Gregorio is a founding member and VP of development for We Need Diverse Books. She told me that the lack of Asian characters in her childhood books, coupled with growing up in a predominantly white town, meant that she accepted that erasure as normal.

"I turned to books to figure out how to navigate life and relationships," Gregorio said. "And as a result of reading so many books with white characters, I internalized that role. I became a ‘banana': yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Self-hating."

Varian Johnson, who wrote The Great Greene Heist and is black, says, "You walk into a bookstore and it's a sea of white. It's tough when you're not represented out there in the world—it makes you feel very strange about yourself, like you don't matter."

A surprising number of books equip the mother of the story with an apron and a broom

Johnson reports that seeing a photo of Walter Dean Myers, author of young adult classics like Monster, was a revelation: ‘It was the first time I saw that, oh, black people can care about and write books too."

Children's books are indeed relentlessly white. The Cooperative Children's Book Center at the School of Education, University of Wisconsin, reports that roughly 3 percent of children's books published in 2014 were about Africans or African Americans; about 8 percent were about any kind of minorities. Lest you think this is due to so many kids' books featuring trains and badgers and crocodiles, the director, Kathleen Horning, addresses those concerns here: In 2013, about 10 percent of books about human beings (as opposed to trains or badgers) featured people of color.

Those numbers don't reflect any improvement over the past couple of decades, either. Horning told me, "The numbers have been fairly stagnant over 20 years. They go up one year and down the next. We haven't seen a steady increase."

Getting my boys to read books that feature minority protagonists can be challenging, simply because there aren't that many: In a search through our local bookstore's children's section, I found several books that explicitly addressed race as a theme, but very few that depicted black children, for example, just doing ordinary things.

And while there's no shortage of books featuring female protagonists, it might be a hurdle to convince my boys to read Little Women instead of My Side of the Mountain, a "boys'" book. The YA writer Shannon Hale notes that when she speaks at school assemblies, the administrations often will grant girls permission to attend her lectures, but not boys. For male authors writing books with male protagonists, the school will allow both boys and girls to attend.

Hale writes: "[T]he idea that girls should read about and understand boys but that boys don't have to read about girls, that boys aren't expected to understand and empathize with the female population of the world ... this belief leads directly to rape culture." It's not a far leap to imagine that white children reading only about white children will stunt their empathy for people of other races.

Parents and grandparents are part of the problem

One factor driving the lack of diversity in children's books, Gregorio tells me, is economics: Parents and grandparents buy the books for children, and they tend to gravitate to their old favorites, just as I did — which means that new children's books have a hard time getting a foothold in the market.

It's time for parents like me to stop doing this. By putting white children at the center of the story, by imprisoning mothers in the kitchen and fathers in the wing chairs, we're offering young readers a limited scope for imagination. As much as I'd like to think that my childhood favorites "broadened my horizons," the characters pretty much ranged from white people in Portland to white people in England. I want better for my own sons. So long, Little Black Sambo and The Five Chinese Brothers. The Secret Garden and Peter Pan might join you in the drawer, too.

Parents buy the books for children, and they tend to gravitate to their old favorites, just as I did

Gregorio tells me that Book People, a bookstore in Austin, has started a program called Modern First Library that curates gift bundles of books — books that are not only good but represent a more diverse culture than, say, Blueberries for Sal and The Great Brain. I called Book People and asked their kids' buyer for her best picks for a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old. She pointed me toward Nino Wrestles the World, Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes, Whistles for Willy, Hush! A Thai Lullaby, and Max and the Tag-Along Moon. Varian Johnson recommended Uh-Oh! and Peekaboo Morning. I put in an order.

Leigh Anderson is a staff writer at She’s written for, Jane, Popular Science, and Salon. Follow her on Twitter @LeighAnderson_ or on Facebook.

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