Lamar Giles, author of the young adult thriller "Fake ID," was an avid reader as a child, but although he read a variety of books, he struggled to find characters he could relate to.
I never saw anyone like me in books," said Giles, pictured at left. "I was a big fan of genre fiction, but if I saw someone like me in a science-fiction book, I was probably the dead man. It messed with me a lot."
Giles knew he wanted to be a writer, but his reading experiences made him unsure his voice belonged in literature. Finding books by authors like Walter Dean Myers and Steven Barnes helped him realize that his dream was worth pursuing.
"It showed me that someone was paying attention," he said. "Someone was writing books about heroic black guys."
Still, the number of children's books featuring black protagonists remains small.
Of the 3,200 children's books published in 2013, only 93 were about black people, according to a study by the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin.
Other minority groups are even less represented in children's literature.
There's been talk about the lack of diversity in children's books since 1965 when Nancy Larrick published "The All-White World of Children's Books," but although books by and about people of color have won prestigious awards like the Newbery and Caldecott medals, the majority of children's books still feature white protagonists.
Although the 2014-2015 school year is the first that has more children of color in the U.S. public school system than white children, the books these kids have access to are overwhelmingly stories about white characters.
The conversation about the lack of diversity in children's books has ebbed and flowed over the past few decades, but earlier this year that conversation evolved into action.
This spring, a panel of children's authors appeared at BookExpoAmerica's BookCon, a U.S. publishing trade show, and every member of the panel was a white man.
That's when Ellen Oh, a Korean American author, came up with the idea for We Need Diverse Books (WNDB).
"She told me she was working on something that was going to make a lot of noise and that it would let people know there's an audience for books that publishers have ignored for years," said Giles, WNDB's vice president of communications.
Oh rallied writers to tweet photos and personal stories, along with the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag, about the need for diversity in literature.
Soon, writers weren't the only ones using the hashtag — readers of all ages, races, ethnicities and sexualities were sharing their messages too.
In July, WNDB became a nonprofit, describing itself as a "grassroots organization created to address the lack of diverse, non-majority narratives in children’s literature."
On Oct. 23, the group launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds to support programs that will get diverse books into classrooms, to establish the Walter Dean Myers Award and to hold the first ever Children's Literature Diversity Festival in 2016.
The campaign had a $100,000 goal, but when it concluded Dec. 11, it had raised more than $334,000 in donations.
Why does diversity matter?
Kids would enjoy reading more if they read about characters more like them. (Photo: U.S. Department of Education [CC by 2.0]/Flickr)
In a recent survey of 2,000 schools, 90 percent of educators said that children would be more enthusiastic readers if they "had access to books with characters, stories and images that reflect their lives and communities."
"For the kids who are marginalized, it bolsters self-confidence to see yourself being the hero instead of simply the sidekick, the comic relief or the sacrificial lamb," author Giles said.
He says it's also imperative that all children see an accurate representation of the world so they can learn respect for different groups, as well as understand how all people share common feelings and aspirations.
"It's important to read about people who aren't like us," says author Matt de la Peña in the WNDB campaign video. "It's only then that we'll have a full understanding of the world around us."
But can simply reading stories featuring characters from marginalized groups really make a difference?
There's evidence that it can.
This is your brain on books
A study recently published in Basic and Applied Social Psychology found that reading fiction significantly increased empathy toward others, especially groups the reader initially perceived as "outsiders."
A similar study last year by researchers at The New School found evidence that literary fiction improves a reader's capacity to understand what others are thinking and feeling.
This increased empathy results from our ability to transport ourselves into a story and share experiences with the protagonist.
Emory University scientists found that reading fiction results in heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex. Neurons in this area of the brain are associated with tricking the mind into thinking the body is doing something it's not, a phenomenon known as grounded cognition.
"The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist," neuroscientist Gregory Berns, lead author of the study, told The Independent.
"We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else's shoes in a figurative sense. Now we're seeing that something may also be happening biologically."
Reading stories that teach lessons of acceptance can also have lasting effects on young readers.
A paper in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology outlines three studies that demonstrate how reading Harry Potter — a book series in which tolerance is a recurring theme — can make people less prejudiced.
It's this acceptance for kids of all backgrounds that WNDB hopes to achieve, and although Giles acknowledges there's a long way to go, he's confident that children's books will someday be as diverse as we are.
"It's amazing to see the public support we've gotten, and I want people to know that we'll keep going. We're going to make sure everyone gets the representation they deserve."
To learn how you can get involved with WNDB, visit WeNeedDiverseBooks.org.
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