Does Representation Matter in Children's Literature?

Today's blog is written by Keirsten Wanamaker, author of The Superstar in You!

Growing up, I always had interest in television, film, live performances, reading and all things creative. My father sang in many choirs and famous venues like Carnegie Hall. My parents took me to Broadway and other live shows often and encouraged me to read. We traveled to events where a well-known radio announcer, who was also a family friend, had scheduled appearances. Attending live events, reading and exposure to music at a young age sparked my love for the arts and entertainment.

The glamour that television and movies provided, as well the many places (mentally) reading a variety of books took me as a child, has always been an escape for me. Although I loved watching television and movies, I rarely saw successful people who looked like me represented onscreen. I did not see characters in the books I read that looked like me, or read books that were authored by a Black person. In school, we read the “classics.” Though I loved many of those books, I did not see positive characters that were my color. Thankfully, I grew up surrounded by successful, strong, accomplished adults who I could relate to and look up to.

By the time I was in high school, I knew I wanted to study media in college and pursue a career in the entertainment industry. My parents were very supportive, however, they questioned my decision at times. The reality was that Black people were not often represented well on television, in movies or in literature. They wanted to steer me toward something they felt would be more stable and safe. Though, I didn’t see “myself” represented often, I was determined to pursue a career in a field in which I could be creative.

When I became a parent with young children, I was always searching for books, television shows and movies that featured positive characters that looked like my boys, so my boys could relate to them. It was important to me for them to see images that reflected what they saw in the mirror each day.

If children do not see reflections of themselves, they can have a false sense of self and think they are “bad” or “wrong.” If they only see themselves represented, they can have a false sense of self and think they are “normal” and “good.” Often, the way a child views themselves, is how they will relate to others as an adult.

When a child sees characters they can relate to, it motivates them to read more, which results in an increased reading proficiency. In an article entitled “African American Students lagging Far Behind” in US News and World Report, it states only 18 percent of African American fourth graders were proficient in reading. The eighth-grade numbers were even worse, with only 16 percent of African American students proficient in reading.

Diversity and relatable representation in children’s books and onscreen are most important in closing the gap between children of color and white children. Culturally responsible books and media create inclusivity and reflect the make-up of the real world.

I am encouraged to see more and more books, television programs and movies that feature diverse characters. There is also increased diversity behind the scenes in media and diverse children’s and adult book authors. We all have the responsibility to purchase, share and research diverse, positive media and literature to help our children flourish, in order to become confident adults who will make humanity better.  

About the Author:
Keirsten Wanamaker has worked in the children’s television and photography industry for over 20 years. She earned her BA in Mass Media Communications from Hampton University in Virginia. She is passionate about health and wellness, inspiring children and women to be their best selves and loves being creative. She is a wife and mother of two teenage boys and lives in Westchester County, NY. 

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