'Kids in your schools are Native 365 days of the year': Publisher pushes for better representation in books

Indigenous authors who are writing for young people should have their books in schools for all children to read, says Debbie Reese, founder and publisher of American Indians in Children’s Literature.
Debbie Reese is the founder and publisher of American Indians in Children's Literature. (Supplied by Debbie Reese)
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Indigenous authors who are writing for young people should have their books in schools for all children to read, said Debbie Reese, founder and publisher of American Indians in Children's Literature.

"Books can be a mirror," Reese explained. "They can reflect their lives, affirm their existence in ways that happens every single day for white kids."

"It doesn't happen with Native kids. It should."  

In her work, Reese reviews books written for young people and focuses on how Indigenous peoples are represented on the pages. Reese holds a PhD in education, is a former teacher, and is enrolled in the Nambe Pueblo Tribe.

She said representation of Indigenous people in children's books is "very low."

(Illustration by David Huyck, in consultation with Sarah Park Dahlen and Molly Beth Griffin.)

The school of education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison tracks data on diversity in children's books. In 2015, they found that 0.9 per cent of books depicted characters from Indigenous communities. "But when you look at that 0.9 per cent, as I did that year, half of that 0.9 per cent was misrepresentation."

"The data that they generate is just a count, it's not a look at the quality. When you look at the quality, the percentage drops even more."

By comparison, in 2015, 73.3 per cent of children's books depicted white children.

Each year when November approaches, Reese gets inundated with phone calls and emails from schools and libraries asking her for book recommendations. November, in the U.S., is Native Heritage month. Reese appreciates that people are reaching out to her, but said it's not enough.

To address this issue, Reese wrote over 30 tweets to teachers and librarians in which she offered book recommendation s but also explained why these books need to be integrated into schools 365 days of the year.

"Those classrooms and libraries have Native students in them all the time. They ought to have programming and books for those kids all year long."