The need for more diverse books in child care

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  Published on Wednesday, 15 April 2020

The need for more diverse books in child care

Library Home  >  Health, Wellbeing & NutritionEarly Childhood ResearchArts, Crafts & Activity Ideas
  Published on Wednesday, 15 April 2020

Books open up a world of imagination and wonder for small children. Page by page, they introduce youngsters to different people, places, cultures and experiences; and while little learners are busy expanding their vocabularies, books are also helping them widen their viewpoints.

The humble children’s book has the power to challenge racial bias, prevent prejudice and help under fives think about themselves and others in a positive way, so it’s worrying to see a bias in the kinds of books available in some child care centres.

According to a study by Helen Joanne Adam, a literacy lecturer at Edith Cowan University, most books in the early learning centres she looked at had white, middle-class heroes, and very few had main characters from a minority background.

Here we look at this research in more detail, and see how parents and educators can find a better balance in their choice of children’s books.

What kinds of books do child care centres offer?

For this study, Ms Adam analysed 2,413 books in four Western Australian child care centres, and split the books into five categories to gauge their viewpoints.

The child care centre libraries were broken down into:

  1. Culturally authentic books
    These books had a main character from a minority background and were usually written by an author from that background.

    They showed children reflections of their own backgrounds. They also helped children understand and appreciate other cultures by often using storylines that most children, of all groups, could relate to in some respect.

  2. Culturally neutral books
    These titles were usually written by white authors and usually had a white main character with non-white characters playing minor roles (often just in the background in the illustrations).

    These books showed children some diversity, but presented a majority, not minority, viewpoint.

  3. Culturally generic books
    These books generally aimed to teach children about cultural diversity, but usually portrayed people from minority backgrounds in stereotypical ways (e.g. by focusing on their food, clothing or celebrations). Sometimes they did present diversity in socially conscious ways, but were usually written by white authors.

    Culturally generic books provided opportunities to discuss or challenge stereotypes, but there’s the concern that relying on just one of these books to teach children about a particular race or culture could just reinforce stereotypical understandings of that race or culture.

  4. Solely Caucasian books
    These books had all white characters and were usually written by white authors.

  5. No people books
    These books were mostly animal stories showing white, middle-class storylines (e.g. through housing, food, daily activities and dress style).

How much book bias is there in early learning centres?

After analysing all those children’s books, Ms Adam found a strong skew towards white, middle-class heroes. She found that:

  • Thirty-three per cent of the child care centres’ titles were solely Caucasian books;
  • About half of the books featured animal characters, and these animals mostly had the values and lifestyles of middle-class Caucasians;
  • Only 18 per cent of the books included non-white characters (11 per cent of the books were culturally generic, five per cent were culturally neutral and just two per cent were culturally authentic); and
  • The small proportion of books that included minorities, ‘Tended to perpetuate stereotypes, rather than providing an authentic representation of the people and their lifestyle.’

Ms Adam says that many of the 2,413 books were, ‘Of a high quality and worth sharing with children’, but with so few culturally authentic books and so many Caucasian-focused titles she identified a collective problem with book bias in the four child care centres.

Why is book bias bad for early learners?

Books are an important way for children to develop their own identity and learn to understand and appreciate others. Ms Adams explains that:

  • Books can be mirrors which reflect a child’s own background and lifestyle, and help them develop a positive sense of self.

    For example, a culturally authentic book about an Aboriginal boy learning about his culture can mirror a child’s Aboriginal background and promote his Aboriginal identity.
  • Books can also be windows into the ways other people live. These books show children the similarities and differences they have with others, and this helps them develop an understanding, acceptance and appreciation of diversity.

    For example, a culturally authentic book about Aboriginal culture can help non-Aboriginal children learn about the culture and break down any stereotypes and misunderstandings.

Children develop their sense of self and views towards others at a very young age, so not seeing enough (or any) books that mirror their experiences and provide windows to others’ lives can have a negative effect, both personally and collectively.

Ms Adams says, ‘The overwhelming promotion of middle-class ideas and lifestyles risks alienating children from minority groups and giving white middle-class children a sense of superiority.’

There’s evidence that bias starts very early in children, with babies as young as three-months-old developing a bias towards their own race. By the time children reach the age of four, five and six, they show an awareness of racial stereotyping or prejudice in different circumstances, so exposure to diverse books in these early, impressionable years is crucial.

By offering more identities, backgrounds and viewpoints on the printed page, parents and educators can help children develop a positive sense of themselves, their peers and people around the world.

How can parents and educators choose more diverse books?

Research suggests that bias can be prevented or changed by even short exposure to other racial faces, so Ms Adams is encouraging adults to, ‘Take action and choose books that increase diversity and present our children with authentically diverse viewpoints.’

To help parents and educators find these books, the National Centre for Australian Children’s Literature (NCACL) has introduced Australia’s first database of culturally diverse children’s books.

After giving it time to load, you can search by author, age (e.g. early childhood or lower primary) or key concept (e.g. family, friends, cross-cultural relations, respect and lots more) for Aussie books with diverse content.

You can also find diverse children’s books with the OurStory app.

At the end of the day, we need to give children the full story about how society looks and functions, and Ms Adam’s research is a good reminder about the prevalence and effect of book bias.

Parents and educators play an important role in offering books that will benefit children’s own identity and view of others, so let’s open up a whole new chapter in diverse book selection.


The Conversation

Australian Children’s Television Foundation

This child care article was last reviewed or updated on Monday, 06 April 2020

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