Reflecting cultural diversity in publishing

German kidsʹ books need more dark-skinned protagonists

Children’s books shape the way we see the world as we grow up. In recent years calls have been growing for European publishers to reflect the increasing diversity. By Sonja Matheson

Migration, integration, identity, diversity – these are the buzzwords of current socio-political debates. They have also thrust children’s literature increasingly into the public eye. When it comes to cultural diversity, children’s books are both mirrors of society and screens onto which society projects its values. In 2013, for instance, a public debate erupted over words with racist or sexist connotations in children’s classics and whether they should be changed in new editions.

In the latest German edition of Pippi in the South Seas, for example, Pippi Longstocking’s father is referred to as the “South Sea King” and not, as in the original, as the “King of the Negroes”. The revision was given a mixed reception: some commentators saw it as an appropriate excision of racism, others called it censorship.

The discussion is not really new. Back in the 1970s, questions were raised about the perspective from which people of different cultures should be presented; what space, and how much of it, should be given to their otherness. For anyone growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, otherness took the form of fat negro kings who had to be defeated, simple-minded African villagers encountered by white explorers or black orphans sent to Europe by parcel post. 

That perspective changed over the years. Social conflicts and xenophobia became issues, so did the conditions in which minorities live. But one thing did not change: with few exceptions, those who wrote about Indian orphans, about the history of Africa or about life in US Indian reservations were white Europeans or Americans. 

Diversity and sensitivity

Thirty years on, identity and diversity are more topical than ever. In 2015, hundreds of thousands of migrants reached Europe. And the first children’s books with distressing stories of displacement were soon on the bookstands. Some were works of literary fiction and dealt with the issue of migration in depth. But others showed how difficult it is to write about otherness without resorting to stereotypes, attributions and simplifications.  

Since then, “diversity” has been the mantra of the children’s book market. Publishers are under growing pressure to reflect this (undefined) diversity in their catalogues. They increasingly hire “sensitivity readers” to check texts for racist, colonialist, discriminatory or marginalising language and connotations. Whether that alone is sufficient, however, remains doubtful.

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