The top selling paperbacks of all time are “Charlotte’s Web”, “The Outsiders”, “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing”, “Love You Forever” and “Where the Red Fern Grows”, according to Publisher’s Weekly.
The books span a range of topics, but they have one thing in common: all of the protagonists are white.
In fact, of the top 50 books on the list, only two feature racial minority protagonists: “Island of the Blue Dolphins” by Scott O’Dell and “When Legends Die” by Hal Borland.
A lack of minority main characters --in terms of racial, gender and other measures -- causes challenges for some students as they began to read.
For Cardinal Heights Upper Middle School (CHUMS) student Thejasshri Vembakkam, it meant she couldn’t identify with most protagonists.
“There’s not many books that I can relate to with my beliefs and who I am as a person because I’m not white,” she said. “My parents aren’t from America … my lifestyle is different than other people.”
Motivated by their experiences, students are teaming up to increase the diversity of books in elementary schools. Sun Prairie High School’s Black Student Union joined Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN) in a month-long book drive.
For February Black History Month, the two groups are collecting books featuring minority protagonists. They’re asking for new and used books for students in kindergarten through fifth grade and donations can be dropped off in the CHUMS main office. CHUMS students are also competing to see which house can collect the most books.
The books should have characters who are minorities, such as through their race or ethnicity, gender or social status.
They’ll donate the books to school libraries in Sun Prairie elementary schools.
Other students echoed Vembakkam’s frustration.
Black Student Union member Taylor Smith said she still doesn’t have a favorite book.
“I don’t think ever in my childhood I… found a book where a person who was a minority was the main character,” she said.
CHUMS student Yutzil Contreras said she’s on the lookout for female, bilingual main characters.
“My parents are from Mexico and I grew up for four years there,” said Contreras. “So I had to adapt to the lifestyle here as well, but I carried on what I learned from Mexico.”
Finding a relatable character can have far-reaching outcomes, students say.
Smith said students who are exposed to relatable characters might be inspired by the books, or they might realize “that being the minority is okay.”
Vembakkam said it can have educational benefits.
“It also develops a habit for reading,” she said, “because in some studies … children who don’t read are 3-4 times more likely to drop out of school in the future.”
A 2012 national study commissioned by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that reading ability, along with poverty level, “dramatically” impact graduation rates. Students who aren’t proficient in reading by third grade are four times more likely not to graduate than proficient peers.
A shortage of minority characters is also a well-documented problem.
Each year, the UW-Madison Cooperative Children’s Book Center analyzes the number of U.S. books with minority protagonists. In 2014, of 3,500 new children’s books, 180 were about African or African-American characters, 20 were about American Indians, 112 were about Asian Pacific or Asian Pacific-Americans and 66 were about Latinos.
Though they may have been discouraged about reading growing up, students say they want to improve the situation for future generations.
“They’re the ones,” said Contreras, “that are going to inherit America after us.”
For more information about the drive, contact Black Student Union advisor Jeff Rayford at (608)318-8129.