Diversity within children’s books has been trying to be achieved by many authors in order to give different perspectives within literature from different cultures.
So when Nyakim Chuol Bur, an author, and her family first migrated to the United States, her parents wanted to ensure that her and her siblings would not forget their native language. In order to ensure that, Chuol Bur’s parents made sure her siblings and her were able to read, write, speak and sign in Nuer.
Nuer is the Nilotic language of the Nuer people, a Nilotic ethnic group mainly in the Great Upper Nile region of South Sudan.
On Saturday mornings, her family and other Nuer families would gather at a church and then spend the day learning the basics of the Nuer language. Chuol Bur said it was the beginning of a spirit that was planted by those sessions.
Chuol Bur explained it would later inspire her to write “My Nuer Alphabet,” a children’s literature book that helps with reviewing the alphabet in the Nuer language. She said while writing this children’s book, she thought of her future kids who would be able to have access to educational tools in their native language.
Chuol Bur said she also thought about the people that had been born outside of South Sudan and had grown up not speaking Nuer.
“It was important for me to have this book out there for anyone who was interested in exposing children to diversity and also for everyone who is blessed with a marvelous amount of melanin, even if they aren’t Nuer,” Chuol Bur said.
Chuol Bur said the most common reaction she has had from her book has been children being able to recognize the characters in the book as African. She has received messages and videos of children saying things such as “Mommy her hair looks like mine,” “That looks like me and my brother” and “Those kids are from Africa.”
Chuol Bur said she has also been sent videos of children before and after learning animal names in Nuer. The parents even reach out to say how much their children love the bright pages, whether the reading is in Nuer or English.
“In the U.S., this book supports the idea that America is a 'salad bowl' theory instead of the 'melting pot' theory,” Chuol Bur said.
Chuol Bur said her book is important because representation matters, and it helps build self-esteem. This book also opens the conversation about different cultures and having an appreciation for how others might speak and live.
Chuol Bur said she believes there is a lack of diversity in children’s books but is also able to recognize how far society has come that she is able to find and order multicultural children’s books.
Katherine Bangert, a lecturer in human development and family studies, said although there is a lack of diversity in children’s literature, there should be a deeper look into it.
Bangert said she has had many students who say they did not look at books the same way they look at them now. The concept of windows, mirrors, sliding glass doors and even curtains are discussed in literature courses offered at Iowa State to help bring a new look at all the possibilities within children and adolescent books.
“Windows, Mirrors, Sliding Glass Door is a phrase constructed by Rudine Sims Bishop to explain how children see themselves in books and how they can also learn about the lives of others through literature,” according to the Institute for Human Education.
Bangert said many people do not see the problem in children’s literature because it does not directly affect them. There has also been the growing use of anthropomorphism, the practice of giving animals human characteristics.
Bangert said there are not enough children’s literature writers and it is even more so that there are not enough writers of color that are being published. However, she said there is a growing demand for not old diverse children’s literature books but also ones written by diverse authors.
Bangert also provided an infographic to show there are diverse books but there is a difference in the size of representation — mirror — that are able to see themselves in. It is important for there to be books readers can see their place in as well as have their potential be displayed in a diverse world.
“Diverse literature directly affects a child’s social and emotional development and their concepts of self,” Bangert said.
Bangert said diverse literature can allow children to see themselves while also gaining an understanding of how others who are different from them live.
Bangert also said she agrees with The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), which came forth with an idea backed by research to show that color blindness keeps people from recognizing, acknowledging and appreciating important differences and that it may lead to unintentional bias toward or disrespect toward those who are different from them.
“They say the world can change one person at a time, but I believe that it really changes one meaningful relationship at a time,” Bangert said.
Bangert said instead of just talking about the need for diverse books, it is also important to make connections with people who believe this and want to also do something about it. She said people will be able to develop new knowledge, understanding, best practices and courage together to strengthen our networks for widespread momentum.
Bangert said teaching human development and family studies, literature for children is a way she practices what she preaches. Instead of just lecturing about how there is a lack of diversity in children’s literature, she has her students apply the information by creating projects and presentations to show how they would apply their understanding of literature and diversity in their future careers.
Chuol Bur said she remembers dreaming about “how cool it would be if the cartoons I watched on TV were translated into our language,” and what it would feel like to look at a book that had illustrations of people that resembled her or had any characteristics to her culture.
“Diversity in children’s books is a glimpse into the world around them and I mean literally around them," Chuol Bur said. "They can serve as a source for understanding that despite the differences we may have, we are all worthy of being respected."