"We are going to have a black president--literature should catch up," National Book Award winner Sherman Alexie said in an interview. Alexie won the award for his 2007 "Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," a semi-autobiographical novel about a teen growing up on the Spokane Indian reservation.
The Chicago-based American Library Association has awarded the Newbery Medal to one book annually since 1922. All Newbery books remain in print, underscoring their enduring nature.
About 10 percent of new children's books published last year focused on minorities, according to the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
"We still are a largely white world in children's literature and it's always an uphill struggle," said Roger Sutton, editor of Horn Book magazine, an 85-year-old review of children's books.
The Brigham Young study analyzed the race, gender and family background of the characters in 82 Newbery winners through 2007. The analysis compared three periods, starting with 1922 through 1950, followed by the era in which the civil rights movement gained momentum, 1951 through 1979, and concluding with the 1980 through 2007.
Black and Hispanic protagonists became scarcer during the past 27 years. American Indian and Asian main characters increased in number--to two each.
In the last 28 years, the protagonists in Newbery winners included 19 whites, two blacks, two Asians, and two Indians. Presumably there were three others. Perhaps they were Aborigines, animals, or aliens.
Comparing these figures with the general population, we see that whites are fairly represented at about 68%. Blacks are underrepresented and Latinos are grossly underrepresented. Asians are overrepresented and Indians are grossly overrepresented--alas. One Indian protagonist every 100 years would be fair, so two in 27 or 28 years is good.
So the proportions of each minority are off, but the overall proportions aren't far off. Where Newbery winners are concerned, this article is a bit alarmist.
The industry as a whole
The story is different for children's books as a whole. Only 10% feature minorities? That figure should be more like 30%. Children's books are much too white overall.
Nor do I believe the typical rationalizations of publishers, editors, and Newbery judges. "We just pick the best books. We can't help it if most of them are written by whites and feature white protagonists."
We've learned that everyone is prone to aversive racism. They're biased against minorities even if they think they're fair. People in the book industry are no different. They judge that what's familiar to them--white people in middle-class, two-parent families--is "best."
For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Books.