Why White People Should Care About Diverse Children's Literature

The late Archbishop Desmond Tutu coined the phrase “rainbow nation” to describe South Africa, and we sure are a melting pot of languages, ethnicities, religions, cultures, beliefs, lifestyles etc. To look around, certainly in urban areas, is to see diversity. To look around at shelves of children’s books, less so. In fact, if we were to broaden our view to include toys, the people on the covers of games, the kinds of pictures printed onto puzzles, the world suddenly becomes a lot less colourful.

Not really a rainbow then.

It is this reduction to that which is bland, monochrome and disconnected from our context that interests me. The value of children seeing themselves, their lives and their contexts reflected in the pages of a book is incredibly validating. It also provides a welcoming bridge into the world of books and literature. It says, “you belong here”, and what could be more empowering than that to a young reader?

The idea that books are “windows, mirrors and doors” was first expressed by Dr Rudine Sims Bishop in 1990. It remains a relevant way of understanding why multicultural literature is important, regardless of race.  Books are not only windows through which a child can observe a world different to their own but can also become a doorway through which they may enter that world and immerse themselves in a completely different kind of life. These two aspects are central to developing understanding, tolerance and empathy towards a diverse and colourful world. These are also essential life skills that we all need and should care about developing.

Bishop also points out that, when the lighting conditions are just right, windows can become mirrors, reflecting our world back at us. It is here where literature gears into an important tool for self-affirmation and identity-making. When a child casts about, searching for a reflection of themselves and finds none (or only a thin, insubstantial or inaccurate one) the message is clear: who you are doesn’t matter enough to belong in books. We should care deeply about any child receiving such a message because books and stories have such a powerful impact on us and our understanding of the world.

To a certain degree, when the melting pot of South African children casts about for stories that reflect their lived contexts, they find only a monochrome version of life and characters that largely exclude South Africa and, more broadly, the global South. We don’t often see the rainbow nation reflected in the pages of a book.

Missing are the hustle and bustle of South African cities, the traders, the taxis, the people making their living in a myriad of innovative ways; absent are our divisions of space, of rural and urban divides; there are school-shaped holes into which our traditions and ways of operating fall; left out are our folktales; omitted are what we eat and how we celebrate; forgotten are our problems and our issues – the threads to unknot those never make it onto the page.

English children’s literature is dominated by stories from North America and Europe, and while a white, middle-class child in South Africa will certainly see much that is familiar in this mirror, it is not an accurate representation of their lived contexts where they exist as one small part in a bigger, more colourful whole.

In addition, so much local richness is missing. Where are the stories about Christmases spent dangling feet into the pool, where the lights are wound around a palm tree, where families gather around a braai outside on the veranda? This may seem an insignificant example, but underlying this absence is a message that affects the way we look at the world and our experience of it: it’s not a real Christmas without snow. Even diverse books from up North depicting children of colour don’t necessarily reflect our landscape and reality. After all, being South African (or African for that matter) deserves its own story.

So why should white people care about multicultural children’s literature? Quite simply put, we are poorer without it, our world is reduced, the colour is erased, the reality of a diverse and complex world is not reflected. The blinds come down over the windows, the doors shut and our reflections in these mirrors either confirm what we already know or distort and don’t quite fit.

In essence, the rainbow fades.

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