Rhymella brings a splash of tech to the timeless industry of children’s literature, with the aim of turning photos into magical story books. Books are unique to each child, illustrated using your real photos of kids. It was only after Rhymella books got into the hands of children that we learned of the deeper implications of this product. Specifically that —
- For all children, to see themselves mirrored in the pages is validating and celebrates their individuality; it also ups reading engagement.
- For certain children, to be represented and reflected in the pages of a book is an especially big deal. This was made clear when one parent told us: “this is the first book where my daughter can really see herself.”
Our founding team is exclusively white and female; notable in the broader white male tech landscape. Yet our collective perspective suffers from the same lack of diversity we are clamoring for. We want to be intentional in our approach, aware of our limited perspective. How can we use our technology to bring an inclusive experience to more children? Here is what we have learned so far —
SEEING YOURSELF MATTERS
“THERE I AM!” “It’s Me!” “How did you get me into the story?” This is what kids say when reading their Rhymella story. Underlying the child’s recognition of self is the message: “I AM worthy of a book.” Even in the most beautifully illustrated books, where characters might generally look the same as a child, ultimately it is not them. Graphical representations of kids (avatars) are limited: kids are smart; they know “that’s not me.” Representation of any child is imperfect, unless we use real photos to illustrate the story. Then each child’s uniqueness becomes something to celebrate. Improved literacy is the invaluable corollary – engagement and word retention are higher when reading personalized content.
MIRRORS ARE HARD TO FIND
“All children need to see themselves reflected in the picture books around them” writes the New York Times editors in the article ‘How to Raise a Reader.’ This is about seeing characters with whom a child can identify. But this is hard for certain kids. White children make up just under 50% of the population in the US, yet 71% of children’s books published in 2018 were about white characters. Hispanic & Latino children make up 25% of the population, and only 6% of books published in 2018 portrayed Hispanic characters.
It is not just a gap in representation of people of color — but in representation of gender, LGBTQ kids and/or families, and people with disabilities. What message does it send to these kids that so few characters look like them? Some of this exists — but it is too hard to find. We need more.
You may be asking yourself: it is 2020, how can this be? Why is it so hard to illustrate books with diverse characters? 79% of children’s books published in 2018 were written by white authors. Mirroring and potentially enabling this lack of diversity, 76% of publishers are white, 81% heterosexual and 89% people without disabilities. For young readers not well represented on the pages, there are implications for identity, self-perception, relation to the world and reading comprehension among others.
RHYMELLA’S PATH FORWARD
Rhymella is uniquely positioned to address this problem — as it exists now, already. Rhymella is bootstrapped, and to get our business off the ground, we have written stories in-house and sourced our own kids for product pictures. Our aspiration is to put forth products that celebrate ALL children. Here is how:
- Authors of future narratives will represent voices of various backgrounds, cultures and experiences.
- Non-gender specific pronouns will be in the next version of our app.
- Narratives will be increasingly customized, to recount each child’s unique story.
- Rhymella illustrations that include people will be representative of all.
- New leadership, employees and board members will be diverse in representation.
- We will continue to seek to learn, understand, and be transparent.
THE BIG PICTURE
All books need not — and should not — have only characters that look like the reader. Books serve as windows into other identities and cultures. To raise children who are empathetic, respectful, celebrate differences and can interact across different backgrounds, our bookshelves need to include books about all kinds of characters. We are actively expanding our own bookshelves, having gained a greater appreciation for how important this is.
Rhymella is committed to creating inclusive literature, by empowering every child and family to build a storybook around their own experience — so that all kids can see themselves in the books they read.
About the Authors
Megan Rzezutko is co-founder and CEO of Rhymella. Sara Brown is an Advisor to Rhymella and Product Strategist at Google.
“The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug,” said Mark Twain. As noted above, we are learning. For terms referring to people with disabilities, we’ve looked to the National Center on Disability and Journalism style guide, for gay and lesbian couples, the GLAAD glossary of terms and for references to minorities, the National Center of Black Journalists style guide.
- In 2018, 11% of books published were about African Americans, 2% about Native Americans, 9% about Asian Pacific Americans, 7% about Latinx characters. Data on books by and about people of color and from First/Native Nations published for children and teens compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison. https://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/pcstats.asp
- Diversity in Publishing figures: Lee & Low Books, Diversity Baseline Survey 2019 https://blog.leeandlow.com/2020/01/28/2019diversitybaselinesurvey/
- 2018 Census Data