Evaluating Children's Books for Bias

Criteria: - all of these are anchors



Check the Story Line


Relationships Between People


Child's Self-Image

Author's or Illustrator's Background

Author's or Illustrator's Perspective


Copyright Date



1.  Omission:  In spite of the fact that many excellent multicultural books are finally being published, omission continues to be one of the biggest problems in literature for young readers today.  Exclusion is one of the most insidious and painful forms of bias; a group may be excluded from an entire collection, or from the books selected for use in a particular library, school district, school, or classroom.  The implicit message is that the group does not exist, is insignificant, or has made no contributions to society.  Erasure is destructive not only to the group(s) involved but to the larger society.

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2.  Illustrations:  Stereotypes.  A stereotype is an over-simplified generalization about a particular group which usually carries derogatory implications.  Stereotypes may be blatant or subtle.  Check for depictions that demean or ridicule characters because of their race, gender, age, ability, appearance, size, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, or native language.

Tokenism.  Is one person from the group presented as having admirable qualities while all the others of the group are stereotyped?  In illustrations, do people of color look just like whites except for being tinted or colored in?  Do all people from parallel cultures look stereotypically alike or are they depicted as genuine individuals with distinctive features?

Who is doing what?  Do the illustrations depict people of color in subservient and passive roles or in leadership and action roles?  Are males the active doers and females the inactive observers?

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3.  Check the Story Line:   Bias may be expressed in blatant or subtle ways.  Check for the following forms of subtle, implicit bias: 

Standards for Success.  Does it take the white male behavior standards for a person of color or a female to "get ahead"?  Is "making it" in the dominant white society projected as the only ideal?  To gain acceptance and approval, do people of color and females have to exhibit extraordinary qualities?

Resolution of Problems.  How are problems conceived, presented, and resolved in the story?  Are people of color considered to be "the problem"?  Are the conditions facing oppressed groups represented as related to an unjust society?  does the story line encourage passive acceptance or active resistance?  Are problems faced by people from parallel cultures resolved through the benevolent intervention of a white, able-bodied, middle-class male?

Role of Females.  Are the achievements of girls and women based on their own initiative and work, or are achievements due to their appearance or to their relationships with males?  Are females of all ages presented as problem solvers with a life of their own, or is their role in the story only as a support of male characters?  Is it assumed that female characters will marry and that this is their only or major interest in life?  Is there an emphasis on describing the physical appearance of female characters?  Are positive female characters portrayed as "beautiful" and negative female characters portrayed as "unattractive"?  Are older females portrayed in a negative manner?  Are older unmarried females ridiculed and assumed to be bitter, unfulfilled, or boring?  Are the images females of all ages prettified?  Are they afraid of mice, spiders, or snakes?  Do they have to be rescued by a male character?

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4.  Authenticity:   Check for inaccuracy and inappropriateness in the depiction of cultures and lifestyles.  Are they oversimplified or do they offer genuine insight into the character?  Check for quaint, cutesy, or exotic depictions.  Is the portrayal of each group authentic?  For example, are Native people from one group shown wearing the hair styles, clothing, or jewelry of another tribe?  Does the book portray diversity among Asian Americans or are they all lumped together, ignoring differences in ethnicity, time of immigration, generations of life in the United States, and location of origin as well as the fact that some groups have been in conflict with each other at various times over thousands of years?  Are recent immigrants and people from the same ethnic group who were born in the United States portrayed in the same manner?  Are the issues facing lesbians subsumed under those facing gay men resulting in distortion, erasure, and/or marginalization?

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5.  Relationships Between People:   Do the white males possess the power, take the leadership roles, and make the important decisions?  Do females, people of color, lesbians, gays, elderly, or disabled people function in essentially supporting, subservient roles?  Do girls and women have strong friendships with each other or do they depend on males to define them?

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6.  Heroines/Heroes:   Whose interest is the hero/heroine serving?  For many years, books showed only "safe" heroes-those who avoided serious conflict with the white, male, able-bodied, heterosexual establishment.  Heroines and heroes should be defined according to the concepts of and struggles for justice appropriate to their group.  When heroes/heroines from parallel cultures do appear, are they admired for the same qualities that have made establishment heroes famous or because what they have done has benefited the establishment?

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7.  Consider the Effects on a Child's Self-Image:   Are norms established that limit any child's aspirations and self-concept?  For example, Asian Americans should not be portrayed as model minorities.  Are fat people portrayed in negative ways?  Every person from every culture should be portrayed as an individual with unique strengths, weaknesses, interests, lifestyles, and beliefs.

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8.  Author's or Illustrator's Background:   Analyze the biographical data available about the author and illustrator.  What qualifies the author or illustrator to deal with the subject?  If they are not a member of the group they are depicting, is there anything in their background that would specifically recommend them as creators of the book?  There has been considerable debate recently regarding what has been termed cultural thievery.  Is it ethical for mainstream writers to appropriate the literature of parallel cultures?  Many people think it is impossible to write authentically from a perspective one has never experienced personally.  People who have been silenced in the past do not take kindly to someone else trying to tell their story now that those stories are finally being recognized as significant.  The publishing industry is still a world filled with scarcity: if an established European American author submits a manuscript for a story representing another culture, will there be room for emerging writers from that culture to compete?  These important issues and related questions are addressed in a special issue on Multicultural Literature in the March/April 1995 issue of Horn Book, as well as in other journals and books.

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9.  Author's or Illustrator's Perspective:   In the past, children's books were written by authors who were white, members of the middle class, heterosexual, able-bodied, and Christian, with one result being that a narrow Eurocentric perspective has dominated children's literature in the United States.  For example, the abolitionists featured in the past were the white members of the Underground Railroad, when in actuality, most abolitionists were African Americans.  Watch for books that present multiple perspectives.  Does the total collection present many world views ?  Are readers encouraged to consider a situation form several perspectives?

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10.  Language:  Examples of offensive terms include: "savage," "primitive," "conniving," "lazy," "superstitious," "treacherous," "wily," "crafty," "inscrutable," "docile," "backward," "bitter," "barren," "squaw," "papoose," and "Indian givers."  Consider the effect of the use of the color white as the ultimate in beauty, cleanliness, or virtue (angelfood); and the color black or use of "dark" as evil, dirty, or menacing (devil's food).  Watch for sexist language that excludes or in any way demeans females.  Watch for sexist language that excludes or in any way demeans females.  The generic use of the words man and he were accepted in the past but their use today is outmoded.  The following examples show how sexist language can be avoided: ancestors instead of forefathers; humankind instead of mankind; firefighters instead of firemen; synthetic instead of manmade; chair or chairperson instead of chairman; and she/he instead of he.

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11.  Copyright Date:  Books on minority themes-often hastily conceived-suddenly began appearing in the mid-and late 1960s.  Most of these books were written by white authors, edited by white editors, and published by white publishers.  They often reflected a white, middle-class, mainstream point of view.  Not until the early 1970s did the children's book world begin to even remotely reflect the realities of a pluralistic society.  the copyright date may be one clue as to how likely the book is to be overtly biased, although a recent copyright date is not guarantee of the book's authenticity.  Conversely, do not throw out all the books with old copyright dates!  Use these guidelines to examine each one.  Use the biased books as teaching tools with your students and colleagues.

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           Day, F.A. (1999). Multicultural voices in contemporary literature: A resource for teachers (1st ed.).  New Hampshire: Heinemann.

Note: Adapted from Guidelines for Selecting BIas Free Textbooks and Storybooks,  Council on International Books for Children, New York, NY.  Other resources consulted were: "Criteria for Analyzing Books on Asian Americans," unpublished paper by Florance H. Hongo (copyright pending); and How to Tell the Difference: A Guide to Evaluating Children's Books for Anti-Indian Bias.