Picture Book Images and Unconscious Bias

For children’s books, a copyeditor looks at more than words. 

Photo of a hand drawing eyes on a sheet of paper attached to a clipboard.

By Christine Ma • April 13, 2022


A few months ago, I visited the children’s section of our local library with my toddler daughter. She selected a picture book that had a bright yellow duck on the cover. I tossed it into my pile without looking at it. It was a cute duck, after all, and ducks were one of our favorite animals. At home, I was taken aback when I opened the book. I had not been expecting the racist caricatures of Chinese men.

That book was The Story About Ping, written by Marjorie Flack and illustrated by Kurt Wiese. It was published in 1933, but it’s still in wide circulation because it’s considered a classic. In 2007, the book was 97 on the National Education Association’s “Educators’ Top 100 Children’s Books” list.

Some people believe that books with…problematic images would never get published today. But that isn’t true.

Many classic children’s books have recently been criticized for racist depictions, and some people believe that books with similarly problematic images would never get published today. But that isn’t true. In the past decade, several newly published picture books have also been criticized for issues such as sugarcoated portrayals of enslaved people and stereotypical images of Indigenous people, even in books meant to embrace diversity.

Book publishers and authors have become more mindful in recent years about hiring authenticity readers (also called sensitivity readers) to review books for stereotypical descriptions, inaccuracies, and unconscious bias. While most authenticity readers are tasked with providing feedback on the writing, it’s just as important that they apply the same knowledge and expertise to reviewing the images in the books. Copyeditors, who usually work on the books after authenticity readers have provided feedback, should also be aware of elements that could be problematic in books with illustrations and photos, especially picture books and graphic novels. Here are some issues to watch for.

Cultural Appropriation

In my work copyediting illustrated children’s books in the last few years, I have flagged images of a tipi in a playroom, a dreamcatcher in a child’s bedroom, and an animal character sporting a feather headband. While these items have become popular on “momfluencer” social media accounts and at retailers that sell decorations for children’s rooms, they are without question examples of cultural appropriation, which is the act of adopting another culture’s elements in a disrespectful or exploitative way. The illustrations of these objects were not important to the stories, and they bore little resemblance to the traditional items of Indigenous cultures and how they are used.

Depicting characters dressed up in costume as a member of a culture that isn’t their own is also cultural appropriation. Examples include blackface and Afro wigs, geishas and kimonos, Egyptian pharaohs and queens, and hula skirts and coconut bras. These depictions almost always play into harmful stereotypes.

There’s a fine line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation, and it boils down to intent.

There’s a fine line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation, and it boils down to intent. Is the item being used to honor or explain the culture in an accurate manner—or is it being used to add “flavor”? For example, showing a traditional mariachi band wearing sombreros to perform at a wedding would be acceptable, but avoid having a random character wearing a sombrero and a fake mustache for comedic effect.

Around Halloween, media outlets will circulate lists of costumes that are inappropriate. Besides culturally insensitive outfits, these lists include props that make light of mental illnesses or disabilities—such as straitjackets, facial disfigurement, or walkers and canes—and costumes that mock homelessness, racial injustice, imprisonment, and other serious issues. The same guidelines can be used to monitor illustrations in Halloween-themed books or other books with scenes featuring costumes, such as pretend play or school performances.

Inaccurate Physical Depictions

In The Story About Ping, the Chinese characters were drawn with slit eyes and yellow skin, which I still find in books I work on today. These stereotypes have deep roots in the anti-Asian sentiment in the U.S. and Europe starting in the late 1800s. With human characters, I keep an eye out for depictions that might not be accurate and flag those for an authenticity reader or further research. I might ask myself questions such as:

  • Does the hair on the Black character look like locs or braids, or is it drawn with cartoonish squiggles and curls?
  • Is the character wearing the hijab properly?
  • Should the man leading a camel in the desert be wearing a shirt to protect himself from the sun?
  • Should the guide dog be wearing a proper harness and not a simple leash?
  • Should the type of wheelchair be self-propelled (manual) instead of pushed by another person (transport)?

Lack of Diversity

Check the representation across the book. Illustrations of crowds are good opportunities to show diversity, when appropriate, like in classrooms or on playgrounds. Characters can have different skin colors and body types. They can wear a variety of hairstyles and clothing, including hijabs, niqabs, and turbans. Or they can have disability markers, such as canes or wheelchairs, service animals, prosthetic limbs, or hearing aids. The art can also show interracial families and same-sex couples. If all the characters appear to be very similar, suggest broadening the representation.

In addition to making sure the illustrations are accurate in their portrayal, it’s important to be conscious about what the depictions are implying.

In addition to making sure the illustrations are accurate in their portrayal, it’s important to be conscious about what the depictions are implying. For example, in a book about firefighters, steer clear of the “White savior” narrative, in which the rescuers are White, while the ones needing to be rescued are people of color.

Research, Research, Research!

This is not a comprehensive list of possible issues with portrayals in illustrations. When I see an image that might be problematic, I try to do as much research as possible—and the research helps me learn what to look for in the future. There are a lot of great resources online. Writing With Color, for example, links to several pages, including this guide to drawing Native characters and this guide to drawing East Asian faces. An illustrator and comic creator gives some tips on drawing trans and nonbinary characters in a Q&A with House of Illustration. And sometimes I look for photos of real people to compare illustrations to.

As a copyeditor, it isn’t my job to dictate what art should and shouldn’t look like, but it is my job to question something that could be hurtful and insensitive or just plain wrong. And while most copyeditors are making sure that words are correct and free of harm, those of us who work with illustrations need to make sure the art is as well.

A light-skinned Chinese American woman with hair past her shoulders smiles into the camera. In the background is an image of large flowers.

Christine Ma (she/her) is a copyeditor and proofreader with twenty years of experience. She specializes in children’s and young adult fiction and nonfiction books. Before starting her own business, she worked at two book publishers and the Philadelphia Inquirer. She is a member of the Advisory Council of Conscious Style Guide.


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