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Where Are the Ethnically Diverse Lead Characters in Children’s Books?

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by Paul Dixon, Co-founder, Matter of Africa America Time Corp.

Paul Dixon

Paul Dixon

As each day goes by, the elementary-age youth in the US become more ethnically diverse. Approximately 50 percent of the children under the age of 10 are non-white. One of the challenges in the children’s book market is there are very few African American, Hispanic, or Asian lead characters. Visit the children’s bookshelves at major booksellers or other mass merchandise retailers and you will not see many lead non-white characters. I would like this trend to change in 2017, and beyond.

Why do I believe this is important?

Imagine you are a little child with brown pigment. As you view children’s books, you rarely see pictures of main characters that look like you. Imagine this continues to happen during your formative years of 5 to 12 years of age. Negative thoughts might seep into your mind: “I’m not important!” “I’m not special!” “None of these characters look like me!”

Visit the children’s bookshelves at major booksellers and you will not see many lead non-white characters.

I have been involved in the retail aspect of the children’s entertainment business since 1994. I worked as a toy buyer for Target from 1994–2002, then as a toy consultant for five years, and Disney toy salesperson from 2008–2016. During this time frame, rarely did I see minority lead characters in toys, books, cartoons, or animated movies. Nickelodeon’s Hispanic lead character Dora the Explorer and Disney’s African American lead character Doc McStuffins are the only exceptions.

With this significant void in the children’s book and entertainment market, and my experience in the children’s toy business, was there something I was supposed to do?

Sometimes career opportunities find you; that is what happened to me. One day in August 2003, a cousin of mine, Lehman Riley, told me he wanted to meet and discuss a children’s book concept on which he was working. Despite being first cousins, I didn’t know Lehman that well, but I still agreed to meet with him.

In August 2003, Paul Dixon agreed to meet his cousin, Lehman Riley, about Riley’s concept of the Papa Lemon’s book series, based on their grandfather.

Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be personally involved in a children’s book business. At this meeting, Lehman introduced me to The Adventures of Papa Lemon’s Little Wanderers series book concept in which our character, inspired by our real-life grandfather, Papa Lemon, helps five racially diverse friends, the Little Wanderers, learn about US history by traveling back in time on Papa Lemon’s Magical Train. Even though Papa Lemon passed away in 1973, we thought this would be an excellent way to keep his legacy alive and get youths excited about fun history lessons.

One year later, Lehman and I officially created a publishing company and printed the first book in the series in September 2004. The Little Wanderers go back to 1963 in order to hear Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. We were on our way in trying to fill the ethnically diverse lead character void in the children’s book market.

The past 13 years have been filled with plenty of highs and lows for the Papa Lemon book business. Thousands of books have been sold; Lehman and I have exhibited the books at hundreds of events; and Lehman has spoken to more than 16,000 students. However, there is still no major breakthrough of seeing more ethnically diverse characters in children’s literature.

Our country has also gone through significant changes during this time frame—a major economic downturn and the election of the first African American president. Yet we still don’t have many non-white lead characters in children’s books that are household names to the youths in this country.

Lehman Riley, co-founder of Matter of Africa America Time Corp.

Regardless of what happens in the book industry, Lehman and I are still dedicated to the Papa Lemon book business. I recently moved to Los Angeles after living in Minnesota for 52 years. I was spiritually guided to make this move in order to create more awareness for the Papa Lemon book business on the West Coast. I truly believe the best is yet to come.

Hopefully, there are other authors and publishers with this same long-term dedication of creating more ethnically diverse lead characters for our youth. If you believe in more diverse lead characters in series books, make a concerted effort to find these books. Buy the books, and then consistently let your network know about them.

Will 2017 be a breakthrough year, or will we have to wait several more years? Only time will tell.

Paul Dixon was born and raised in Minneapolis. He worked in merchandising for Target stores for 16 years, including eight years as a toy buyer and senior buyer. In July 2004, Paul began a business venture with his cousin, author Lehman Riley. They created the company Matter of Africa America Time Corp. in order to publish a series’ book titled The Adventures of Papa Lemon’s Little Wanderers. Seven Papa Lemon books have been published thus far.

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