Krista Aronson heads Bates College’s Diverse Bookfinder program, a website that tracks more than 3,000 children’s books from American publishers to figure out how they showcase an increasingly diverse nation. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — As a young girl, Krista Aronson didn’t have a single picture book that depicted a mixed-race child like herself.

On her wall were illustrations of a white girl with red hair drawn especially for her by a family friend.

“I identified with them,” said Aronson, a psychology professor at Bates College whose work focuses on how people understand race and ethnicity.

Now she wonders how those long-ago books shaped her.

“It changes your aspirations. It changes your thinking about who matters,” Aronson said Thursday.

It’s good that “we think differently now,” she said, and understand the need to have books that include pictures that look like the youngsters reading them.

Aronson is a creator of the Diverse BookFinder website that tracks more than 3,000 children’s books from American publishers to figure out how they showcase an increasingly diverse nation.

It’s a resource to help librarians analyze the children’s books they have so they can see what’s missing from their offerings, an especially helpful initiative since a joint program with the Maine Humanities Council and the Portland-based Brooks Family Foundation has money available to buy some volumes for institutions with few resources.

The effort is one part of a growing movement to expand the people and topics covered by children’s books.

Matt Tavares, a bestselling children’s book author and illustrator who graduated from Bates in 1998, said there is a growing interest within the industry in ensuring more diversity.

“It’s getting better,” he said, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement.

He said publishers are aware of the need for more diverse characters in the books and are making decisions about what to print with that goal in mind.

“It’s kind of an amazing time for children’s books,” Tavares said.

Aronson, too, sees improvement over time — but points out there are still plenty of gaps.

For instance, there aren’t many children’s books about Arab-Americans, she said.

And when she went looking for a book that showed African-American and Arab-American children together, Aronson could only come up with one.

Aronson, who is Irish on her mother’s side with African heritage on her father’s side, said she always tried to find appropriate books to read to her children, 17-year-old Sophia and 5-year-old Hope.

Her younger daughter, she said, still gets excited when she brings home a battered suitcase full of new books to read. Hope told her she looks like Mary Poppins walking in.

As a parent, Aronson said, “I always wanted to have books for my kids that made them feel visible and important for their own growth and development.”

Seeing themselves reflected in the art and stories, she said, helps children envision the breadth of possibilities for their future.

“Reading time is the key,” Aronson said.

Rachel Slaughter, an author and learning specialist at Friends’ Central School in Philadelphia, said Thursday that “diversity in children’s books plays an essential role in child development.”

“Children need to read quality multicultural literature that is free of bias and stereotypes since this is the best way for them to learn about other cultures, or people in their own communities,” she said. “This knowledge helps children expand their minds while celebrating diversity.”

Slaughter said the Diverse BookFinder program at Bates “is essential. It provides a resource to teachers, librarians and educators who wish to provide multicultural literature in their classrooms and libraries” by putting”a list of diverse books at your fingertips.”

“That is a true gift,” Slaughter said.

What the BookFinder resource aims for is to categorize children’s books so they can show up in searches for such things as characters with a particular ethnicity, background or race. It also put them into different slots to show what type of book it is — a biography, an “any child” volume, something activists would like and so on.

The Diverse BookFinder site operated by Bates College to help librarians and educators find diverse children’s books.

“This is the first time you can reliably search for a book in this way,” Aronson said.

With 3,047 books in its database — and more added regularly — it’s possible for a library to upload a spreadsheet of all of its books and get back a report that lays out how it fares in terms of presenting the diversity of America.

That report shows strengths and weaknesses. It highlights what books a library might want to add.

Aronson said the program began with plenty of help from libraries across southern Maine, including Lewiston and Auburn, so in part to thank them for their assistance a new grant program aims to pay for some of the books they might need for their collections to reflect more diversity.

The program’s collection at Bates can also be accessed directly through inter-library loans, Aronson said, so that its books are available to millions of people.

Not all the books are great, she readily admits. The database doesn’t actually look at their quality.

“We have all the books. We have the good, the bad and the ugly,” she said.

While showing off the collection at Bates’ Ladd Library, Aronson wondered if she should move a few displayed prominently to the bottom shelves in order to highlight some she liked better. But she didn’t touch them Thursday.

Aronson said the “messy part” is trying to figure out what makes a good picture book. It has something to do with having a limited text that ties in well with good art, she said.

“No one book is going to do all things well,” she said, but some are better than others.

“I look for books that are authentic,” Aronson said.

Since she reads 50 or 60 of them each week, she sees plenty that miss the mark but also quite a few good ones.

Aronson said she thinks the BookFinder program is helping prod publishers to fill some of the gaps that analyzing books has highlighted, such as the shortage of books about Arab American children.

“By revealing gaps, maybe we can get more balance,” she said.

Someday, Aronson said, she hopes the program can help educators not only find diverse books but also help them figure out how best to use them.

Every child, after all, needs to figure out how to succeed in an increasingly multi-cultural world, she said.


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