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Are American children’s books getting more “woke”?

A new study suggests not—at least in representation of race and gender

TO GET A sense of America’s war on “woke”, look at its classrooms. In many schools, teachers, parents and legislators have become locked in battle over materials that, depending on whom you ask, push a smug liberal agenda or promote an inclusive, progressive outlook on race, gender and sexuality. The American Library Association documented nearly 1,300 demands to ban or restrict books last year. One school district, Sarasota County in Florida, spent over $60,000 in legal fees to fight a lawsuit and a challenge that aimed to censor woke books.

Are children’s books really more woke than in the past? A recent study analysed the content of over 1,000 of them to see how portrayals of race and gender have changed over the past century (see chart 1).

The researchers, at the University of Chicago and Columbia University, focused on popular books that won at least one award between 1923 and 2019. Using computational methods such as face detection and natural language processing, they analysed the skin colour of characters, and how often male and female characters were featured, to assess whether publishers and book awards have been promoting more diversity.

They split the books into a “mainstream” category of critically acclaimed books and a “diversity” category of titles that have won recognition for both their storytelling or artwork as well as their inclusion of underrepresented groups. They found surprisingly few changes in books in either category over the past decades.

The share of white characters pictured in the mainstream group has fallen only slightly; in the diversity group, which focuses on non-white stories, white representation has actually increased since the 1990s (following a dip in the 1980s). In both categories white characters are overrepresented compared with the share of white people in America’s population. They are also overrepresented when compared with the make-up of public schools: whereas 23 years ago 61% of schoolchildren were white, in 2017 they represented less than half (48%). Yet roughly 75% of characters from the most recent mainstream and diversity titles are white. Asians were the only non-white category that were more represented in the books than society as a whole.

Even when non-white characters do appear in mainstream texts, the study found that they tend to have skin tones at the lighter end of the range for their ethnic group, when compared with the diversity books (see chart 2).

The analysis on gender yielded similar results. Female words (such as pronouns or familial terms like “grandmother”) make up less than half of all the gendered words that appear in both the mainstream and diversity categories throughout the past century, despite the large role that women play in children’s lives. In the 1920s female words made up less than 25% of all gendered words in the mainstream books; in modern books their share is still well below 50%. The study also found that women are more likely to show up in illustrations than the narrative. This, the authors conclude, shows that girls and women do not play as big a role in storylines as men and boys.

The race and gender of characters is just one measure of the “wokeness” of children’s books. The study does not, for instance, look at how dominant topics or storylines have changed over the same period, which may offer different results. Although books on LGBT+ themes were included in the diversity titles, the research did not examine how their characters’ representation has developed over time. But what it does show is that white men and boys still dominate children’s books, as they did a century ago.

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