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A White Children's Book World? It Still Is, Says New Study's Author

by Melanie Bencosme /
This photo taken July 21, 2014 shows students in Jane Cornell's summer school class learn story telling skills at Mary D. Lang Kindergarten Center in Kennett Square, Pa. Matt Rourke / AP file

Once upon a time there was a white boy that was trapped as the main character in children’s books.

This could be a story line drawn from a study by Northern Illinois University Associate Professor Melanie Koss, who reviewed 455 children's books published in 2012 and found that 75 percent of the main characters were white and 60 percent of them male.

“You have to be motivated to read and part of it is being inspired to read,” said Koss, who teaches courses in children's literature and education. “If you never see yourself in a book it could have an impact on your motivation to read and it can impact reading comprehension and ability.”

The study found only a quarter of the main characters in the books were non-white, and they were normally added to the background or were supporting roles to the main white character.

Forty five percent of the books' primary culture was white; blacks were featured as the main culture in just 9 percent of the books. Those that did feature black characters made their race into the story and discussed historical moments in black history.

Related: Duncan Tonatiuh Wants Latino Children to See Themselves in Books

“It’s right to have characters that just happen to be black in the story. Why does the race of the character have to be the story?” said Koss.

Koss's reporting highlights research as far back as 1965, when a study of books pointed to a lack of non-white characters.

Beyond race and ethnicity, Koss found only 36 percent of the main characters in the 2012 books she studied were female. Of those, more than half of the females had more traditional gender roles such as stay-at-home moms, ballerinas or housekeepers.

Only nine percent of the books included characters with disabilities and only one character was found to have a cognitive disability.