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BIPOC Children’s Literature - Past, Present, and Future

Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, a professor emerita at Ohio State University with a focus on multicultural children’s literary studies, coined the phrase back in 1990 to explain how children see themselves and learn about the lives of others through media and literature. “Mirrors” so that children may see themselves reflected in what they read. “Windows” to give readers a glimpse into the lives and experiences of others. And “Sliding Glass Doors” so that we may learn to step through these windows into the worlds of the authors on the other side.

In her article, written back in 1990, Bishop said, “When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part. Our classrooms need to be places where all the children from all the cultures that make up the salad bowl of American society can find their mirrors.”

Now, over 30 years later, BIPOC children still face an overwhelmingly white-centered narrative as it pertains to literature and media, with less than 10% of authorship dedicated to any of these individual groups (census data 2021). Although it may feel like diverse narratives have become more accessible and even popularized in more recent years, these stats show that the inclusion of these authors and diverse narratives has been nominal, with studies even showing a rise and dip in the popularity of BIPOC-centered stories from 2020 to 2021.

This begs the question - how can we do better to ensure our literature actively reflects diverse stories and characters, and how can we support our BIPOC authors and educators who are already doing this work in their circles?

To understand what actions we need to take, we must critically examine the first introductions of BIPOC characters in literature.

In 1899, Helen Bannerman (a white author living in India at the time) published her first book with Harper Collins titled, “The Story of Little Black Sambo.” This was one of the first widely distributed works featuring a black child as the protagonist. While there was nothing particularly startling about Bannerman’s plot, it eventually received national attention from Civil Rights Activists due to the names and exaggerated depictions of the characters. Langston Hughes, one of the first to address the issue, immediately recognized the style of drawing as “pickaninny” (a derogatory caricature of black people) and was quoted at the time saying, “Amusing undoubtedly to the white child, but like an unkind word to one who has known too many hurts to enjoy the additional pain of being laughed at.” Reinforcing Bishop’s belief that such depictions don’t only damage the communities they’re portraying by devaluing them but can actively skew the reader’s perception of the people and lifestyles of communities of color, the harm of this book is in its creation of believable yet disparaging characters, a theme we have continued to see in the portrayals of BIPOC characters in media and literature to this day.

And, historically, a lot of black literature hasn’t actually been ‘black literature.’ This means that, even if black or characters of color are featured, BIPOC writers have often come second to their white counterparts. Written by a white author, Ezra Jack Keats, in 1962, “The Snowy Day” is a crucial example of this as it was the first widely praised book centering around black culture and acceptance, even receiving the Caldecott Medal for excellence in children’s literature in 1963, despite the writer not being a Black author.

There is an existing understanding that white authors sharing BIPOC stories is a way for these communities to use their power to uplift voices and stories which wouldn’t otherwise be heard. Though I agree that allyship in supporting the narratives of BIPOC communities is pivotal, this raises an essential question of how white communities can and should contribute to the conversation. White authors writing stories featuring people and communities of color may have inadvertent consequences. They may block BIPOC authors from getting their own narratives featured, portray an unconscious bias in depictions that could have more adverse effects than positive, and, let’s not forget, would profit from the stories of these systematically marginalized groups while potentially not crediting them properly.

Although not a children’s book, a great example of this is in the story of Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta was a poor tobacco farmer who was dying of cervical cancer. In 1951, her doctors took her cells after a visit without her knowledge or consent. The cells they took from her became vital for developing the polio vaccine. They uncovered medical discoveries in cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects and helped lead to significant advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping. They have been bought and sold by the billions, yet Henrietta and her family have received no compensation - her children even struggling at times to afford health insurance. In 2011, Rebecca Skloot wrote about Henrietta, sharing her story and even highlighting the injustice in the lack of compensation for the Lacks family. Yet, none of the profits from Skloot’s book went to the Lacks family. Even the dedication at the beginning of the book looks to celebrate Skloot’s own family instead of the family she seems to be highlighting.

There is a fundamental difference between writing ‘for’ or ‘to’ someone rather than writing ‘about’ them, and although Skloot’s story does highlight the injustices of the Lacks family, it also furthers the problem by profiting from black pain and marginalizing the story and family who it markets to uplift.

So, how can we best support BIPOC authors and narratives? Here are some actions you can take today:

  • Hold our school systems accountable for teaching inclusive and anti-racist curriculums that focus on joy and critically examine how the BIPOC experience is depicted in readings.

    • Use a framework my friend Catie Santos De La Rosa developed that focuses on criticality and reviews readings by looking through the four lenses:

      • Where do we see contributions?

      • Where do we see challenges or barriers?

      • Where do we see advocacy?

      • Where do we see joy?

    • Because children need to see their own lives and experiences depicted in literature as well as develop empathy and understanding around stories that don’t mirror their own, we need to include a variety of topics and stories which accurately depict these various experiences and highlight the BIPOC authors behind them.

    • BIPOC stories should not be solely stories of oppression. They should include stories of wonder and magic, fiction and non, relevant to all races and perspectives, to highlight the countless beauty in the experiences and lives of different communities and people.

  • If you consider yourself to be an ally or co-conspirator, support BIPOC children's book authors by pre-ordering their work and leaving reviews!

    • I cannot stress this enough. Pre-ordering and leaving reviews for BIPOC stories is critical as this tells the publishing company and sellers (such as Barnes and Noble or Target) that there is a demand for these types of stories. This demand opens the market for more BIPOC stories to be written, creating room for BIPOC authors and diversifying stories and author representation in the publishing space. By contributing in this way, you can help create a socioeconomic shift in what gets produced and whose voices are heard.

    • And most importantly, remember that these stories are not just for people of color but for everyone. By reading about diverse experiences and perspectives, your child will have more empathy and understanding of others and the world around them.

  • And lastly, welcome and actively support the need for BIPOC-only author spaces within the publishing field.

    • In her article, “Why People of Color Need Spaces Without White People,” Kelsey Blackwell states, “In integrated spaces, patterns of white dominance are inevitable… These patterns happen even when white people are doing the work of examining their privilege. They can happen even when facilitators design and model more inclusive ways of being together. Why? The values of whiteness are the water in which we all swim… [And] those values dictate who speaks, how loud, when, the words we use, what we don’t say, what is ignored, who is validated and who is not… In integrated spaces (where we [BIPOC] are less likely to be ourselves given the divisions that white dominance has created), we fall into the roles society has assigned us.”

    • BIPOC author critique groups, Publishing Branches that campion BIPOC authors and Informal spaces like BIPOCbooktok are crucial for ensuring that BIPOC authors have the safety and support systems, creating room for authors with shared stories and backgrounds to commune together and allowing their authenticity to flourish.

The root of everything is in the power and influence of literature and media. How children see themselves and others portrayed gets established at a young age. Regardless of the work done to dismantle bias, these lessons and depictions will forever impact how they move in society. Do your part and honor BIPOC authors by buying and reviewing their work, supporting school curriculums that diversify the narrative, and being an accomplice to your BIPOC-only creative spaces to give them freedom and authenticity to come together (without the stress of continually swimming upstream).

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