In five of the 18 books, explicit references were made to the cultural background or nationality of characters of color. In these stories, the reference is used to describe (1) an adoption process (Baby’tje in mama’s buik, Vriendjes van overal), (2) migration and homesickness (Bij ons in de straat, Dit is voor jou, Jan Toorop—Lied van de tijd), and (3) aid to countries in the Global South (Vriendjes van overal). In three of these cases, the cultural background or country of origin was not named specifically but descriptions as ‘from far’ or ‘the country of parrots’ were used (Baby’tje in mama’s buik, Bij ons in de straat, Dit is voor jou). In the other two books, a specific heritage was mentioned in the context of the current country of residence (Jan Toorop—Lied van de tijd, Vriendjes van overal).
In four of the 18 books, indirect descriptions in combination with appearances help understand the specific cultural background of the characters of color. These descriptions included languages characters speak or clothing (i.e., being able to speak Arabic and wearing a hijab; Vriendjes van overal), characters’ food preferences (i.e., couscous; Slagroom op je snoet), specific language use (i.e., ‘dushi’, a word from Papiamento; Naar opa en oma pannenkoek), and the setting surrounding characters (i.e., living in a palace in Islamic architectural style; Beste Bregje Boentjes). Although the last description was clearly used to create an unfamiliar, but exotic and adventurous setting, the other descriptions did not serve such a clear purpose in the story and were used in settings very familiar to young children: in the classroom and while visiting family. Although this was not a predefined question to guide coding, it was noticeable that responses to these implied references by White characters were mixed: whereas the White character in the Middle Eastern palace seemed impressed and interested (Beste Bregje Boentjes), another White character was worried when a character of color used an unfamiliar word (Naar opa en oma pannenkoek). A similar reaction tapping into fear of the unknown, and specifically fear of Africa, is found in a book in which the main character is a bit scared of the African department of the museum (Omdat ik je zo graag zie).
In the majority of the 18 books, (n = 10) no explicit nor implicit reference to a specific cultural background was provided, and ethnic appearance was the only indicator that characters were not White. The appearances of the characters of color were mostly culturally specific: the characters not only had a different skin tone, but also other ethnicity-related characteristics, such as facial features, hair structure, hair style and clothing. These ethnicity-related characteristics were rarely mentioned in the text, rather, it seems that most books (n = 14) did not include these descriptions in text. One book for example did mention several other details of a character’s appearance (i.e., her dress, the flower in her hair), but did not mention skin color or hair structure (Verliefd). In four books, ethnicity-related physical characteristics are mentioned. In three of these cases, the description is very brief, as it only concerns hair color (Vriendjes van overal), or the mention of a beard (Alle dieren drijven, Held op sokken). The other exception is a more extensive discussion with a specific purpose, as it explains similarities and differences in appearance between the character of color and his (adoptive) parents (Baby’tje in mama’s buik).
Cultural authenticity can be examined at character and story level. At character level, this includes their behaviors, emotions and descriptions. Because books for young children mostly contain relatively short story lines with few words, the description of characters is often not very detailed. In none of the books the characters of color were explicitly described negatively or disliked by other characters. On the contrary, the characters were explicitly described with positive adjectives in several books (e.g., sweet, intelligent, kind, working hard, strong, Alle dieren drijven, Held op sokken, Verliefd). Because of the limited details, in half of the books descriptions of characters’ behavior and emotions were neither culturally authentic nor stereotypical (n = 9). In two books, in the context of migration, the characters of color showed emotions and behaviors that could be described as appropriate and culturally authentic, as they are similarly identified in real-world populations. A Middle Eastern character, about whom the suggestion was aroused that he was a refugee, was described as being homesick (Bij ons in de straat), which is in line with self-reported stressors of refugees in the Netherlands (Gerritsen et al. 2006), but could at the same time reinforce the potentially stereotypical notion that migrants’ main tie will be with their country of origin. A Black character, in addition, re-migrated to live with his family (Dit is voor jou), which is one of the main reasons of remigration to for example Suriname (General Bureau of Statistics 2013). In addition, an example of a counterstereotype is found in the book Handje, displaying a Black father and his son in the zoo, which counters the stereotype that Black fathers are absent or less involved in the caretaking of children (Thomas et al. 2008).
In contrast, the behavior of characters in some books seemed more stereotypical. A Black boy, for example, was described as very flexibly swinging in the trees, while his White female friend was very cautious and not able to do the same (Kersenhemel), which could be seen as both a gender stereotype and an ethnic stereotype linking to the dehumanization of Black people by associating them with monkeys (Goff et al. 2008), or to the stereotype of heightened athletic ability (Harrison 2001). In addition, the only classmates of color (one Moroccan and one Black) in the books from the same series (Series Jimmy and Lisa) were described as the most busy, outgoing, funny and cheeky in the classroom, which could tap into both an ethnic and gender stereotype about problematic behaviors and externalizing problem behavior. Generally, externalizing problem behaviors are reported more often for boys and children from underrepresented groups, specifically Moroccan and Surinamese, in the Netherlands, although it is unclear whether these differences reflect actual behavior differences or rater bias (Zwirs et al. 2011). However, the characters were not explicitly described as having externalizing problem behaviors. Therefore, the characters might also be perceived by children very positively and provide opportunities for children with similar behavioral patterns to identify with. There was also one example of characters of color together with White characters showing behaviors stereotyping others, as the characters in Vriendjes van overal dressed up as different nationalities in very traditional ways.
At the story level, cultural authenticity can be found in appropriate settings and values. In most of the 18 books studied (n = 13), characters of color were not displayed in culturally specific settings, but were found in more general settings such as at home (without cultural references), at school, in public places like a park or zoo, on the street, in the city, or in fantasy-like worlds. In one of the books, cultural decorations and festivities (i.e., with references to dragons and lanterns) accurate for Chinese culture are portrayed (Wang et al. 2014), even though cultural background did not play a significant role in the story (De tuinman van de nacht). In two books covering migration stories, thus in which cultural background did play a role, the characters of color were displayed in culturally accurate settings representing their country of origin, by displays of landscapes and forms of nature common in those countries and very different from the other settings in the book, representing the Western country (Dit is voor jou, Jan Toorop—Lied van de tijd). In another migration story, in contrast, the house of a Middle Eastern character resembling Islamic architecture was more stereotypical, as the story is situated in a Western society (Bij ons in de straat). It should be noted, however, that all other homes introduced were also very stereotypical for those characters (e.g., a sailor living in a boat and an old lady living in a knitted house). Although in another book a palace with Islamic architecture is more appropriate, as that part of the story is set in the Middle East, details such as a dressed monkey, a magic carpet and a harem of women in the background make the setting more stereotypical (Beste Bregje Boentjes), with some aspects reminding readers of Disney’s Aladdin (Elturki and Shaman 2013).
Given the often not very detailed stories, in most of the 18 books studied no culturally authentic nor stereotypical values were identified (n = 13). A few examples of culturally authentic values were found. To start, two books referred to values appropriate for the Middle Eastern characters (without a reference to a specific cultural background), such as hospitality, working hard to reach achievement and the importance of family (Alle dieren drijven, Bij ons in de straat). Indeed, family solidarity and (academic) aspirations for children generally tend to be of great importance to migrants from for instance Turkey and Morocco (Merz et al. 2009; Phalet and Schönpflug 2001), and hospitality is in line with interdependent ideals common in Middle Eastern cultures (Buda and Elsayed-Elkhouly 1998). In another book, interdependent values commonly associated with Asian culture (Markus and Kitayama 1991) were portrayed through an Asian character whose main goal was to improve society, without being acknowledged for it (De tuinman van de nacht). Simultaneously, however, this could be interpreted as a serving role of this character. Lastly, in the story featuring a remigrating Black character, a degree of patriotism and love for the home country was portrayed (Dit is voor jou), which seems common in the context of remigration, as Suriname being the home country is most often named of as the reason for remigration (General Bureau of Statistics 2013). In contrast, the harem of women in the Middle Eastern palace in another book touched upon stereotypical power relations among dominant males and submissive females (Beste Bregje Boentjes).
In most of the 18 books (n = 10), the characters of color had interethnic friendships with White characters (Dit is voor jou, Held op sokken, Kersenhemel, Series Jimmy and Lisa, De tuinman van de nacht, Verliefd). In four books, the characters of color had White family members with whom they had a close and positive relationship (Baby’tje in mama’s buik, Heb jij misschien olifant gezien?, Naar opa en oma pannenkoek, Omdat ik je zo graag zie). In terms of power relations, the characters of color were generally portrayed as equal to the White characters in interethnic friendships. In one case, the character of color is clearly in a passive role of being someone’s love interest (Verliefd), while in other (n = 7) cases, the characters of color were more active and dominant. Jimmy in the Series Jimmy and Lisa, for example, often took the lead and decided what to do, at the same time resembling gender stereotypical role patterns, and the characters of color in Dit is voor jou and De tuinman van de nacht taught others their skills and, implicitly, important values and life lessons. In three books, however, the power relations furthermore resembled another power structure. In one, a character of color seemed dependent on and worked on the property of a White character (Kersenhemel). In another, the character of color living abroad was rich and seemingly powerful, yet his family member living in a Western society had a low-status profession (Beste Bregje Boentjes). Furthermore, the description of the only character of color in a book introducing all residents in a street (i.e., as being very sad and singing songs about homesickness at night), seems intended to evoke pity while this is not the case for the White characters (Bij ons in de straat).
Although there are no explicit examples of White supremacy in the books, the three examples mentioned above do suggest that these characters of color in Western settings have a relatively low status. In addition, eurocentrism is identified in two stories in which Western countries ‘help out’ individuals in non-Western countries, through adoption processes or aid programs (Baby’tje in mama’s buik, Vriendjes van overal). Furthermore, one example of applying Western standards is a character of color offering to adapt accordingly (i.e., abandon his harem, Beste Bregje Boentjes). One of the books in contrast seems to highlight diversity in the illustrations (showing flags from numerous countries, a lot of diversity in people, mannequins in the shop window, and types of dogs), but without explicitly mentioning it (Omdat ik je zo graag zie). Earlier, it was already established that few references to cultural background were made, that these were mostly non-specific, and that in few of the books ethnicity-related physical characteristics were mentioned in text. In combination with the lack of cultural authenticity as described above, these statistics imply a degree of colorblindness, as little attention is paid to cultural and ethnic details and experiences.
Types of books
In 7 of the books studied, no aspects of cultural specificity or authenticity were identified for the characters of color, indicating that these are culturally generic, as they do not include any cultural details or stereotypes at character or story level. In the 11 other books, there was an explicit or implicit reference to a specific cultural background, or some degree of cultural authenticity was identified.
A combination of both was found in only three books (Bij ons in de straat, Dit is voor jou, Jan Toorop—Lied van de tijd). These could be categorized as culturally specific, although the degree of cultural specificity is limited to descriptions of a ‘different’ (but no specific) background in two of these books (Bij ons in de straat, Dit is voor jou), some degree of stereotypes is also identified in one of the books (Bij ons in de straat), and only one of these books showed aspects of cultural authenticity on both the character and story level (Dit is voor jou). Therefore, even within books categorized as culturally specific, there is room for more cultural specificity and authenticity to fully meet the description of highlighting the unique experience of characters of color and including cultural details to do so. The other books in which some degree of cultural specificity or cultural authenticity was found (n = 8) can be divided into two groups: in five of these books, explicit or implicit references to cultural backgrounds were made but no other cultural details or authentic aspects were included or stereotypes were shown, while in the other three no references to cultural backgrounds were made, but culturally authentic values in accordance with the ethnic appearance of characters were portrayed in the story. These eight books fall somewhere in between the categories culturally generic and culturally specific, as they do not contain no cultural details at all (culturally generic), but also do not use enough cultural details to highlight the unique experience of characters of color (culturally specific).