White-Framing and Whitewashing Children’s Books

The white racial frame seems to be operating everywhere in this society, including in the way children’s books are written, framed, and produced by the mostly white-run publishing industry. This dominant frame is amazingly well-conditioned, inbedded deeply in minds and brains, and often relatively unconscious. For example, Mitali Perkins has an interesting article in a recent School Library Journal examining stereotypes in children’s books.

She raises important questions for teachers (and thus libraries and others) about what to look for in assessing how a children’s book deals with racial matters, questions such as these:

How and why does the author define race? Is the cover art true to the story? Who are the change agents? How is beauty defined?

Consider her reasoning on a few of these issues. One question and answer set is about whether and how authors of children’s books take note of the racial realities of characters:

Ask . . . Why did the author choose to define race? If the only answer you come up with is “maybe he wanted to show how open-minded he is” or “she could have been trying to move the world toward a better day,” that’s not good enough. A better answer might be, “because the particular community where the action is set is diverse.” Or, “because the protagonist knew how to make kimchee from scratch.” The story and characters, not the author’s best political intentions, should determine whether or not he or she defines race.

I see her point about making racial identification part of a real story, but I think it is fine for authors to intentionally work a diversity of characters into a book with an eye to moving our racist “world toward a better day” — and indeed making it realistic for children living in our multiracial world. She next makes this very point in discussing how most children’s books leave out characters of color. Books

must express diversity lest we fall into the trap of the television show Friends, in which an all-white cast lived and worked in an apparently all-white New York City. Sadly, in the children’s book world we’re not too far from portraying that kind of nonexistent America. Statistics show that 17 percent of students enrolled in American schools are African American. During 2008, however, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center . . . found that among the 3,000 or so titles they received, only six percent had significant African or African-American content. While 20 percent of the country’s students are Latino, only about two percent of all books reviewed by CCBC had significant Latino content.

Once again, we see how the deep white framing of mostly white publishers keeps the children’s book world pretty white. The impact on all children of such white framing is quite significant, as numerous studies show. Another issue she raises is in regard to book covers for children’s books. Numerous books are published with covers that downplay the main characters’ racial group if that group is not white:

Consider the advance readers’ copy of Ursula Le Guin’s Powers . . . released with a white model on the cover despite the protagonist’s Himalayan ancestry.

The final cover was belatedly changed to be more realistic. In these cases, and there are a great many, the envisioned sales audience is white, and in the publishers’ view the latter should not have to encounter faces of people of color on covers. On this point, Felicia Pride at theroot.com writes about a recent incident where the initial cover put on books had a white girl on it:

(Cover Photo Source: The Root) liar

Looks like book publishing isn’t all that post-racial, but we already knew that. A controversy has been brewing regarding the book cover for “Liar,” a young adult novel by Justine Larbalestier that’s set to publish at the end of September by Bloomsbury Children’s Books. The cover (see right) features a young white girl whose faced is partially covered by her long straight hair. The problem? The book’s main character is black.

The publisher eventually pulled the many first covers and put an African American, but still light-skinned skinned, girl on the new covers. In this case protests against the whitewashed cover had a significant impact. One sign of anti-racist action, and a first step in antiracist action, is the problematizing of what was once seen as just normal and natural framing.


  1. Hannah

    I really appreciate the commentary and questions Perkins includes in her article…as a pre school teacher it is important that I am cognizant of the racial messages the books in our classroom are portraying. Thanks for writing about this! I will have to check out her whole article; the questions will be extremely useful in choosing literature.

  2. Jenni M.

    Interesting points . . . I would add a related issue which is that media productions (magazines, advertisements, TV shows, movies, you name it) often portray images of happy, interracial friend groups, engaged in happy, interracial interactions, living in happy, interracial neighborhoods and schools. Unfortunately, such images tend to reinforce colorblind images of a post-racial world that does not exist (Charles Gallagher has some great work discussing the structural impact of presenting these types of colorblind media images). Some might say that broadcasting such “diversity” is a way of bringing such a world into existence. However, given that hiding the racial reality of the U.S. has never worked to bring about a better world in the past, it’s hard to imagine why it would work now.


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