One recent night at their usual bedtime reading time, Jenna Cruz and her 6-year-old daughter, Esme, settled in with "Esme the Emerald Fairy" by Sarah Creese. It's one of the girl's favorite books because the main character shares her name.
But that night, for the first time, Esme pointed out other similarities between herself and the fictional Esme.
"Mom, she's just like me — she has dark hair like me and her skin is just like mine!" said Esme, whose hair and skin resemble those of her father, who is third-generation Mexican.
"She just lit up," said Cruz, who is white. "Most of the other fairies are white and I think that night she just happened to notice it more."
Cruz was especially thrilled because — although Esme did not know it — she has been involved in efforts to give kids like her daughter more books with characters who look like them.
Cruz is a member of Residents Organizing against Racism (ROAR), a parents' group in the Eastern Carver County School District holding a crowdfunding campaign to add more racially and ethnically diverse books to school library shelves. So far, the group has raised more than $2,500, surpassing its $2,000 goal.
School librarians generally agree on the need for diverse characters and authors, said Lori Peralez, media specialist at Bluff Creek Elementary in Chanhassen, and the school district has already been working to diversify its collection.
But making that change can be challenging, said Sarah Park Dahlen, an associate professor of library and information science at St. Catherine University who specializes in children's and young adult materials.
"There are so many more diverse books today than when I was growing up," she said. As a child, Dahlen, who is Korean American, never saw Korean characters in books.
Although diversity in children's books has improved since then, "we still have a long way to go," she said. "There is a lot of evidence out there that children are more engaged when an assignment or reading or content is directly relevant to them."
Dahlen has co-created infographics illustrating racial inequity among children's book characters, the most recent of which shows that of more than 3,000 kids' books published in 2018, half featured white characters. Coming in second, at 27%, were animal characters — more than all characters of color combined.
Another problem, Dahlen said, is that many children's books have white authors. White authors who include characters of color in their books, she said, might inaccurately depict cultures they don't belong to — and authors of color need opportunities to write and illustrate their own stories.
Peralez said she keeps that in mind when she selects new school library books.
"I really try to purchase books by authors of the color that they are portraying," she said.
Part of Peralez's job is to stock books that support the school curriculum. She said she's searching for books that represent history from multiple perspectives, such as the Revolutionary War told from a Black perspective, or the westward expansion in the United States told from a Native American perspective.
Julia Berry, a cultural specialist at Carver Elementary School, is working to organize a program in which people of color in the community read diverse books to school classes. Developing the project has been challenging amid pandemic restrictions, although she has held three sessions remotely.
District officials have expressed interest in spreading the program throughout the district's elementary schools.
"The goal is to get lots of different people of different races and ethnicities in front of the students and to share their love for reading," Berry said. "Let's actually get rid of all those negative ideas and start affirming and building positive stories for these different identities."
Katy Read • 612-673-4583