The lack of diversity in children's literature is nothing new – it's an issue that's been roiling the book world for years. Just in the past few weeks, it's come to a head with the We Need Diverse Books campaign on Twitter and Tumblr. Everyone agrees: all kinds of kids need to be able to see themselves reflected in the books they read.
Now, a kids' literacy group thinks it's found a way to help that happen: First Book is a non-profit organization that gets books to kids in need. "There's been a growing recognition that there's a disconnect between children's books that are available and the diversity of the market," First Book CEO Kyle Zimmer tells NPR's Lynn Neary. And, she says, the statistics don't look good. "It's worse than you would guess."
On the statistics
After all these decades you would hope that we might have made more progress than we've made. So if you look at it, the number of — and these are statistics from a study out of the University of Wisconsin — the number of books by and about African American kids is about 1.3%. Books by and about Latino is about 3.3%. So the disconnect is profound.
On the importance of seeing yourself in a book
The data from First Book, from our own network ... they overwhelmingly report, in excess of 90% report that when kids see themselves in books, they are far more likely to become enthusiastic readers. But we also know that this isn't just about kids seeing themselves in books, this is also about kids seeing other kids in books, and other cultures in books.
On the First Book plan
Publishers will be stronger in their response, they will produce more books with diverse content if they're sure that the market is there. So First Book stepped out with a campaign called Stories for All, where we have guaranteed that we will buy 10,000 copies of the titles we select, that show a great commitment to diversity. And what that means for publishers is that there's a market there.
LYNN NEARY, HOST:
The lack of diversity in children's literature has been a problem ever since - well, ever since books have been published. Though there's been some improvement in recent years, books featuring characters of different races and ethnicities are still woefully lacking.
Recently, the issue has gained momentum with a Twitter campaign using the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks. The message is kids need to be able to see themselves reflected in the books they read.
In response to the campaign, First Book, a nonprofit children's literacy group, came up with an idea that may encourage publishers to create more multicultural content. With us now is Kyle Zimmer, the CEO of first book. Good to have you with us, Kyle.
KYLE ZIMMER: Great to be here. Thank you.
NEARY: Can you start off by telling us more about this #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign. Where did it come from? What prompted it?
ZIMMER: This is the latest wave in a debate that's been going on since 1965. There's been a growing recognition that there's a disconnect between children's books that are available and the diversity of the market.
And this was a group of committed people who decided that it was time to more formally open a public debate about that.
NEARY: Now I know you have some of the tweets from this campaign, #WeNeedDiverseBooks. I wonder if you could read a couple of the interesting tweets that have been part of the campaign.
ZIMMER: Absolutely. We need diverse books because I grew up thinking brown men couldn't be anything more than a sidekick. We need diverse books because the school where I teach is 50 percent Hispanic, but the library sure isn't. We need diverse books because I want my boys to grow up in a world where they never feel invisible.
NEARY: That's great. So what are the statistics that we have on the number of books about kids of different color - black, Hispanic, Asian - books for them in the marketplace?
ZIMMER: It's worse than you would guess. After all these decades, you would hope that we might have made more progress than we've made. So if you look at it, the number of - and these are statistics from a study out of the University of Wisconsin - and the number of books about African-American kids is about 1.3 percent. Books by and about Latino is about 3.3 percent. So the disconnect is profound.
NEARY: Yeah. So why is it so important for kids to be able to see themselves when they're reading a book?
ZIMMER: The data from First Book, from our own network - we have about 120,000 educators who are involved with our organization in the U.S. and Canada.
And they overwhelmingly report that when kids see themselves in books, they are far more likely to become enthusiastic readers. But we also know that this isn't just about kids seeing themselves in books. This is also about kids seeing other kids in books.
NEARY: So your organization, First Books, has come up with, I think what you have described as a kind of market-driven solution to this problem. Can you explain?
ZIMMER: It's really very simple. Publishers will be stronger in their response. They will produce more books with diverse content if they are sure that the market is there. So First Book stepped out with a campaign called Stories for All and where we have guaranteed that we will buy 10,000 copies of the titles we select that show a great commitment to diversity. And what that means for publishers is there's a market there.
NEARY: And who will be buying these - the 10,000 copies of each of these books that you select?
ZIMMER: Well, First Book is a national organization that provides free and very low-cost books to organizations, classrooms, all kinds of settings that register with us and that serve children in need. So we provide books to the kids at the base of the economic pyramid.
NEARY: And what about middle-income families, families who are not poor?
ZIMMER: Well, everyone should be buying diverse content for their children. First of all, it's the right thing to do for your kids. They are going to be stepping out into a highly complicated world.
And the better you can prepare them for that and heighten their understanding and their compassion for others, they'll be far more successful as adults. And secondly, it'll build that market and ensure that we're reflecting our country, the country we're all so proud of.
NEARY: Kyle Zimmer is the CEO of First Book. Thanks for being with us, Kyle.
ZIMMER: Delighted to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.