Though Portland is hailed as a literary hub, in reality, many homes don’t have books readily available. This is particularly problematic for children who need to read books and have books read to them in order to build foundational learning skills. The Children’s Book Bank (CBB) is a local nonprofit that works to bridge this literacy gap here in Portland by giving books to those in need. I spoke with Jocelyn Beh, development director, about the CBB and the need for more diverse children’s books.

Tell me a little bit about the mission of the Children’s Book Bank and the work you do.

The CBB’s mission is to get books to kids who don’t have them at home. Many homes simply don’t have books. They are seen as a luxury, and parents who don’t read themselves don’t see books as a priority for their children. To combat this, CBB gives quality books to children in need in the Portland area. Kids deserve to have books, and CBB provides a way for the community to come together to help provide this basic functional resource. Books are a foundational learning tool, and gaining exposure to books at home leads to early literacy skills and sets kids up for success in school and beyond. National data shows that in low income neighborhoods, there is only one book for three hundred children. In middle and upper income neighborhoods, there are thirteen books per child. We’re here to change that in our local community.

Often when we talk about diversity we think mostly about race. Can you talk about some other aspects of diversity you’ve encountered by working with the CBB?

As an organization, when we think about cultural diversity we are thinking about a whole range of issues: ability and disabilities; family diversity, including gay and lesbian parents, single parent households, and multigenerational homes; language diversity; biracial and multicultural diversity; and, of course, racial diversity.

We would love to see all these aspects of diversity represented in children’s books, but right now that’s not realistic. So CBB is focusing on racial diversity as a starting point. Seventy-five percent of the children we serve are from communities of color. We want them to see themselves reflected in books, especially the books we provide.

Why is it important that the disparity in children’s book publishing be addressed?

The state of children’s book publishing right now just isn’t realistic. The selection of books we have to offer doesn’t reflect our whole world, only a segment of the population. Kids need to see themselves and their families reflected in the books they read. It’s a point of validation. It is a way to feel like my life matters, my community matters, and there is value in my experiences. And as the characters in books serve as role models, diverse characters and themes help children relate to the world and feel connected to it. The more a child can relate to the characters, the more they will connect to the book, the more they will enjoy reading, the more books they will read, the better they will do in school, etc. Reading and reading diverse books is really a foundation for success.

And diverse books aren’t just important for children from underrepresented cultures. Children in dominant cultures need to see the reality of the world reflected in books because it gives them a way to experience other cultures vicariously. It increases their empathy for all of humankind, and it gives parents a way to talk about different lives that maybe aren’t right outside the door.

Often in children’s books, characters are anthropomorphized animals or inanimate objects. Do you view these books as diverse in that they are not predominated by little white children? Do you think they just sidestep the problem of diversity altogether?

Not necessarily. Language and perspective are still reflected in these kinds of characters and indicate dominant or diverse cultures. Even baby books that just have pictures are showing objects that are more familiar in some cultures rather than others. And really, we need more diverse authors writing all kinds of books, even just showing objects and animals. According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, in the past twenty years, only 10 percent of children’s books have included multicultural content, despite the fact that people of color represent 37 percent of the US population.

To address some of these issues, last fall the CBB launched the A Story Like Mine project, a revenue- and awareness-building campaign to increase the availability of culturally diverse books and to give kids books that represent their lives. You can learn more about the Children’s Book Bank and how to help here.

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