sealPurdue News

January 17, 1997

Children's books: Very little written in black and white

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Any child might tell you that blacks and whites don't belong together. That's because they see it -- by not seeing them together -- in children's books.

"The social distance between blacks and whites is persistent throughout children's picture books -- even today," says Elizabeth Grauerholz, associate professor of sociology at Purdue University. "Books show children what their world is like, and the world depicted in children's literature is largely void of interracial cooperation."

Grauerholz and colleagues Bernice A. Pescosolido of Indiana University and Melissa A. Milkie of the University of Maryland studied the portrayal of blacks in U.S. children's picture books from the late 1930s to the 1990s. They found some interesting peaks and valleys in how often blacks appeared.

"At the times of greatest social conflict between whites and blacks in this country, blacks disappeared from children's books," Grauerholz says. She says virtually no blacks appear in children's picture books during the seven-year period of 1958 through 1964.

"It is a reflection of the United States in general that we don't see a lot of intimate-interracial friendships," Grauerholz says. "But we don't get a true mirror image in children's books. For instance when blacks were most visible in other media -- during the years of civil unrest -- they were absent from these books."

Grauerholz says in the late 1960s, blacks were reintroduced as characters in children's books, but in safe and socially acceptable ways. In some instances books were reissued with blacks replacing some white characters. "Books with all-black characters also started to emerge -- but they were not contemporary American black men and women. Rather they depicted distant, historical images of blacks in Africa," Grauerholz says.

She says this reliance on African themes in books was probably the publishers' way to recognize the black community while staying away from older, stereotypical depictions of blacks. These books also started receiving a lot of awards and advertising. In 1971, "Moja Means One" by authors Tom and Muriel Feelings was the first book written and illustrated by blacks to be awarded a Caldecott Medal, recognizing excellence in illustration.

"The irony in the promotion of books about African folk-tales is that while they are an important part of the African-American cultural heritage, awards committees have granted prestige to books that remove blacks from contemporary American society and from whites," Grauerholz says.

Since 1965, the percentage of blacks appearing in children's books has stayed relatively the same: Between 20 percent and 30 percent of books each year depict black characters. However, interracial interactions are rare. "Illustrations may show black and white characters standing beside each other, but equal and intimate interaction between them is less likely," Grauerholz says.

In all, the researchers studied more than 2,400 children's picture books published since 1937. Fifteen percent of them depicted one or more black characters. Books selected for study included Caldecott Medal winners; a random sample from the Children's Catalogue, which is a broad compilation of books used by librarians in making book purchases; and all the books in the Little Golden Books' standard series, which is the most popular and available set of children's books in the United States.

The study has been accepted for publication in the journal American Sociological Review.

Source: Elizabeth Grauerholz, (765) 494-4691; e-mail,
Writer: Beth Forbes, (765) 494-9723; e-mail,
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: Copies of the 54-page journal article are available. Contact Beth Forbes at (765) 494-9723.

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