Please welcome Hannah Ehrlich, the Director of Marketing and Publicity at LEE & LOW BOOKS. LEE & LOW BOOKS has been on the forefront of this push for children’s books to reflect the diversity in the world around us. Today, Hannah reflects on the bias in non-fiction and puts forth options of heroes of color for children of all colors!
When we look at nonfiction through a lens of diversity, we find that though children’s bookshelves are crowded with biographies and accounts of key moments, some stories and perspectives are noticeably absent. As the saying goes, “History is written by the winners.” In the United States, “winners” has historically meant white men, and much of the nonfiction published for children still reflects this bias.
As a result, for us here at LEE & LOW BOOKS, publishing great nonfiction has often meant finding the heroes who should be better known and the moments that presented turning points—small or large—but never made it to the history.
One recent example of this is our new picture book Little Melba and Her Big Trombone, by Katheryn Russell-Brown and illustrated by Frank Morrison. This picture book biography tells the story of trombonist and arranger Melba Doretta Liston, one of the great unsung heroes of jazz. It’s humbling to contemplate what Melba, an extraordinary talent, had to overcome simply to do what she loved. She faced both racism and sexism, yet still came out on top; if you don’t know her name, you surely know the names of some of those she arranged for: Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Quincy Jones, Aretha Franklin, and Bob Marley.
Muhammad Yunus, the subject of the book Twenty-two Cents: Muhammad Yunus and the Village Bank by Paula Yoo and illustrated by Jamel Akib, is another example. Yunus grew up in Bangladesh and witnessed extreme poverty all around him. Instead of becoming numb to it, he studied economics and developed the innovative concept of micro-lending: offering small low-income loans to the poor to help them start businesses and break the cycle of poverty. Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work and changed millions of lives through economic innovation, but his accomplishments remain largely unknown. We felt that a children’s book about his work would inspire a new generation of innovators who seek solutions to even the most overwhelming problems.
When the only biographies on a shelf about people of color feature Martin Luther King, Jr. or Nelson Mandela, it sends a message that people of color were absent from many parts of history and overlooks their achievements in other areas. But by showing diverse heroes who succeed in a wide range of fields, we reinforce the idea that diversity is not just skin-deep: that people of color can excel as actors, athletes, economists, artists, musicians, and much more. This is not just an important acknowledgement of key contributions to history. It also allows young readers of color to imagine their own futures more fully, by offering them role models in many different fields and showing them what is possible.
If you read nonfiction with your children or students, think about what kinds of role models may be missing from your shelf. Seek to find out-of-the-box heroes to learn about in addition to the usual “names.” Not only will you be offering a more accurate version of history, but you will also be helping to build a richer future.
Hannah Ehrlich is the Director of Marketing and Publicity at LEE & LOW BOOKS, a children’s book publisher focusing on diversity. She has spoken about the need for more diverse children’s books on Huffington Post Live, CUNY-TV, CSPAN Book TV, and other places. She also serves as a Publisher Liason to the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement. Find her on Twitter at @LEEandLOW where she discusses children’s books, diversity issues, and chocolate.