Think about some of the classics of children’s literature. There’s Where the Wild Things Are...Goodnight Moon...and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Those are just a few books that have shaped the lives of many Americans. What do all these books have in common? They’re all about white people. And what do most children’s books have in common? They’re almost all about white people. Actually, just 10% of children's books published in the last 21 years are about people of color. But a Berkeley-based children’s book company called Crayon Crunch wants to help change that. They’re publishing a book where parents and children can pick what the main character looks like. But what do kids think of having characters who look like them? And can one book really change the diversity problems in an entire publishing industry?
Make your own hero
Every day Tim Osterbuhr gets a request from a parent who wants to design a child. He goes over some of possible skin colors on his computer screen.
“So we have different...like, lighter tones, darker tones, and very many different options. I think we want to be at a level where we can represent everyone,” Osterbuhr explains.
Osterbuhr is not a mad scientist. He’s the co-founder of a new children’s book publishing company called Crayon Crunch. Their book, My Magical Adventure, is a high-tech personalized children’s book where families can design what the protagonist looks like - down to their freckles, or prosthetic limb.
“We are the first book to allow any ethnicity or disability represented in any book. We believe every child should have the opportunity to go on an adventure, even if the adventure is fictional,” Osterbuhr proclaims in his Kickstarter video.
My Magical Adventure will ship out to 200 backers this fall. After that, parents can pick and choose among hundreds of different options online to design their own characters.
Controlling the narrative
Roughly 40% of the US population are people of color, and yet in 2014, only 393 children's books published were about them. Back in the 70s, when author Aya De Leon was growing up, this number wasn’t even close to that. So, she said her mother took matters into her own hands.
“She would take a marker and just color in some of the characters in books. She would give them a little afro with the black marker pen and color them in brown with the brown marker pen,” De Leon says.
With the rise of self-publishing, De Leon has more technological weapons than permanent markers. She’s published her own book called Puffy: a Story of Hair That Defies Gravity. Puffy includes photographs of her daughter, and puffy-haired kids, and puffy-haired celebrities.
More than gravity defying hair
Oakland parent Mia Birdsong never had trouble finding books like Puffy. Try typing “African American books” on Amazon. Books about African American culture and African American girls learning to love their hair aren’t hard to find. But Birdsong wanted a book where black kids just got to be kids.
“I'm waiting for that to happen where we get to be in our stories more in a way that isn't about shining a spotlight on culture or hair or struggle,” she says.
Now Birdsong runs Cainrow, a database where she and others recommend compelling books about people of color.
“So I think if you grow up white in this country, it's like, fish don't know that they're wet, right? You grow up seeing yourself everywhere so it doesn't occur to you that that's not normal. If you're a person of color, it's a very different experience,” Birdsong says.
When Birdsong’s daughter was born, she came up with two rules for their new book collection. Number one: They had to tell a story well. Number two: No white people.
Diversity among the bookshelves
When I went to the Rockridge Public Library to ask kids to design their dream character, the answers ranged from bald raccoon men to teenage bank robbers to adventurous girls who solve mysteries named Kaitlyn. Alexa Borden is a multiracial 10-year-old, and her kid book heroes don’t look like her. They’re more of the talking animal variety.
“I don't know what animal, but it would sort of make a lot of funny mistakes but then it would end up doing something right,” Borden says.
But Borden is also interested in people she wants to understand. Some of her neighbors are gay parents, for instance. She shows me a copy of How It Feels to Have a Gay Or Lesbian Parent: A Book By Kids for Kids.
On Borden’s summer reading list are books like One Crazy Summer, a book about the Black Panther Party and Kira Kira, a book about a family that moved from a Japanese community in Iowa to Deep South Georgia. Her mom, Cheryl Aguiler says her daughter doesn’t need a book with a character that looks like her.
“I feel like she has read so many books, from telling the story of people who are different than herself. She can learn about their perspective. I don't think she needs to see herself in any of these because she has read so much.”
Showcasing diverse kid lit is something Oakland children’s service librarian Nina Lindsay thinks about every day. But no matter how hard she tries, it’s still pretty difficult to change the publishing industry. Lindsay takes me to the kids section of the Oakland Public Library. Lindsay says there’s a few things that haven’t changed in the world of kid lit: dragons, trucks, princesses, and characters who are white.
“I trained to be a librarian in the 90s, and we talked a lot about this then. The numbers, they differ year to year around racial difference, but it's about 10% of books are by and for people of color. It was like that in the 90s, and it was like that now,” Lindsay says.
We Need Diverse Books campaign fuels the debate
But the conversation is changing. Last spring, in response to an all-white, all-male panel of children's authors at a reading event, Twitter exploded with weneeddiversebooks hashtags. The same conversation Lindsay had been having with other librarians and her patrons for decades suddenly went viral. And as a librarian, she has a unique power to remind publishers what her readers want.
“And what they want from us in Oakland is more diversity in children's books. And so, they do hear that from us. They hear it in the way that we purchase and when we have the opportunity for that conversation we do bring it up,” Lindsay says.
In 2014, 14% of kid lit published were by or about people of color. That’s a 4% rise from the year before. But the numbers have gone up before, only to go back down again. The voices of local librarians can only be so loud. So where does that leave those who bypass mainstream publishers entirely?
Take, for example, folks like Crayon Crunch, the publishers behind the personalized kids’ book. Crayon Crunch’s CEO Tim Osterbuhr hopes that if he proves that there’s a demand for diversity, the publishing powerhouses might take notice.
“If they say there is a market for this, and we give them this proof of concept, and say, ‘Hey there's a real business here’, some might really consider it, or at least bring a product out that offers these capabilities of customization,” Osterbuhr says.
But he also just wants to show a few hundred kids a good story. In the end of My Magical Adventure, the protagonist learns that it’s fun to pose as clowns, archaeologists, and artists, but that’s not all there is to it. The protagonist decides that while it’s fun to walk inside the lives of others for awhile, it’s not so bad to be herself, either. Sometimes, kids need a little bit of both.