Since then, the number of books featuring marginalized identities has increased. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin at Madison examines thousands of books for kids and teens published each year, and in 2015, it found that about 14 percent of American kids’ titles were about people who weren’t white. In 2017, this figure rose to 25 percent. “We have found, however, that the increase in the number of books about people of color is due to an increase in white authors writing about diverse characters,” the Center’s director, KT Horning, told me. “It does not mean that we are seeing more books by people of color.” Even so, diversity—in children’s books and in so many other parts of society—is these days a politicized issue, and an increasing focus on it in children’s books is a development that scans to some as liberal.
Some of the messages in politically oriented books, though, might be going over kids’ heads. Sharna Olfman, a psychology professor at Point Park University, in Pittsburgh, walked me through what children of different ages might be able to understand when reading or hearing stories with political themes. She told me that very young children can empathize with another’s feelings, but that it isn’t until “middle childhood”—roughly ages 5 to 11—that they can empathize with someone’s circumstances, like coming from another country or being unable to speak a certain language fluently. After age 11, kids can start to grasp the finer points of a political philosophy. For that reason, Olfman says it’s important to distinguish between “parroting the perspective of the author or the parent” and “deeply understanding” the issue at hand.
Laura Stoker, a political scientist at UC Berkeley, put it to me this way: “Kids know that they’re Democrats before they have any clue what a Democrat is.” Stoker thinks it’s possible that children’s books touching on politicized issues are representative of broader political polarization. “Parents who feel very strongly want to produce children who feel the way they feel and adopt their values,” she says.
Still, she noted that most American children actually aren’t raised with much political instruction. “That may sound crazy to those of us who came from very, very politicized homes, but the vast majority of Americans come from other kinds of homes where that's not true,” she says. Buying woke picture books may be a popular political statement for some parents, but it seems plenty of households don’t have any use for them.