Bucks County girl seeks to add diversity to children’s books and toys
“You can be anything.”
It’s the message that will greet any child looking for Barbie bouncing off the back shelves of Doylestown’s Busy Bee toys.
Encased in plastic behind the inspirational hot pink label is a blonde paramedic doll carrying a jump bag wearing a highlighter yellow safety vest. In the adjacent box is a black-haired African-American doctor doll with a stethoscope and a white lab coat, beaming her bright smile at any little customer who stops by.
Nearby, in Buckingham Township, lives a 10-year-old girl with long braids and a complexion as deep as Dr. Barbie’s. Marea Claybourne-Napier’s mother says it was not easy to find dolls that looked like her daughter when she was a baby.
“We worked really hard to find brown dolls and black dolls,” said Philadelphia native Laura Napier.
“It was tough with the Barbies, and then they started releasing more Barbies,” Napier said. “Marea has a lot of blacks, browns and pinks.” Pink is how Marea describes the white skin color of her Caucasian parents.
These days, in Busy Bee Toys, a sea of several other boy and girl dolls with brown, tan, peach and tan faces keep these Barbies company. It is not by chance.
“I sell dolls of different skin colors and order them regularly,” said Nerice Kendter, owner of a toy store, who selects each item sold. “It’s not just families of color who buy these dolls, sometimes it’s white families who say, ‘I want my child to play with dolls of all colors.'”
The population is growing, but she knows there aren’t many black people living in Doylestown. The ethnic makeup of Bucks County as a whole includes 82% white residents and 4.1% black residents, according to 2020 census data. Still, Kendter takes extra care not to exclude diversity and inclusion of its toy selection process.
“We want kids to be able to walk into a toy store, see themselves, and be able to spark their imaginations as they play,” said Kendter, who is white. She has observed changes in the faces and races of many dolls and action figures over her 15 years in the industry.
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“(The game is) so essential to forming who these little beings are,” she said.
Busy Bee Toys sells all kinds of items, but when it comes to its doll stock, Kendter makes a point of choosing brands that reflect a range of ethnic backgrounds.
One example is Bonikka, a small Sri Lankan toy line that uses mostly organic materials. “They recognize that the world comes in different forms,” Kendter said, pointing to the plush, multi-ethnic toys. “They could have stuck with an Asian market, and they didn’t.”
Throughout Kendter’s years of selling toys, cultural awareness has flourished in the industry.
Sure, she could find a dark-skinned doll 15 years ago, she explained, but it was hard to find culturally diverse lines and manufacturers easily back then. “The representation is much richer and we are all excited to see it,” the business owner said.
Racial representation in toys and books
Going back even further, to the days of segregation in the United States, dolls proved to be much more than just toys.
A 1940s self-esteem psychological experiment that later helped influence the landmark Brown v. Board of Education, demonstrated how black children of the time viewed themselves negatively compared to their Caucasian peers.
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The Kenneth and Mamie Clark Doll Test involved asking 253 black children aged 3 to 7 to identify the races of two black dolls and two white dolls. They also had to choose the one they liked the most. Most children preferred the white doll and gave it positive characteristics, while 59% said they thought the black doll “looked bad”.
And when asked to choose the doll that most resembled their own face, psychologists reported that some children were so upset they cried and ran from the room, according to the study. Countless versions of the original doll study have been conducted over the ensuing decades.
“Some of these ongoing studies have really motivated women of color to enter this industry and create beautiful dolls with different skin tones,” Kendter said.
These days, dolls have become more and more representative, but what about the fairytale princesses that adorn the pages of a child’s favorite book?
Representation of Black/African, Indigenous, Asian Pacific and Latinx people in books aimed at young people has slowly increased over the past 20 years, according to data compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin- Madison.
CCBC reviews between 3,000 and 4,000 books each year. In 2002, the center reported 69 authors of black children’s books, with 166 stories featuring black characters.
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Today, the two figures brought in as many as 312 black children’s book authors and 450 books about black characters, according to CCBC data.
The Bucks County family creates a fairy tale for all
They can add a young African-American writer and illustrator into the mix.
When she was just 5 years old, Marea Claybourne-Napier struggled to find princess stories featuring empowered girls of color. Now 10, she and her mother, Laura Napier, have created their own fairy tale – with a twist.
“We used to tell stories at night, and Marea liked to change fairy tales, you know, there’s the three little pigs, and then there would be five pigs,” said Napier, writer/director and Philadelphia native who has moved his family from Brooklyn to Bucks County.
She and her husband, Hollywood film producer Doug Claybourne, adopted Marea as a baby.
“With this one, it was ‘princess look like me and we’re changing the story,'” Napier recalled of his conversation with his only child. She wrote the story and Marea, who is an aspiring playwright herself, drew and colored the illustrations.
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They describe their book, “The Rainbow Prince,” as a modern day fairy tale promoting the representation of children of color. The main characters are both black, and this time Princess Marea rescues the prince. “We were like, ‘there has to be a heroine and she has to save the prince, more of that helpless women stuff,'” Napier said.
They came up with the idea that the prince’s skin color would change with his mood. When he is happy, he is brown.
Napier said that often movies, especially fairy tales, portray bad characters as having darker skin. They wanted to overturn that and other fairy tale stereotypes.
“The brunette was going to be good and happy, and also that Prince Rainbow was happy and comfortable in that skin, that’s his real self, that’s where he feels loved and accepted,” Napier said. .
Marea’s parents, who are white, struggled to find various dolls to play with when she was younger. That has since changed, Napier said, but she added that the challenge has always been more difficult with children’s books.
“We’re really looking for that,” the mother said. “Marea has a lot of books with brown heroines.”
Five years after creating their book, their 35-minute short film of the same name premiered to families in Doylestown in February.
According to a study by the Children’s Television Project at Tufts University, out of 1,500 television characters, 5.6% – 84 of them – were black or African American. Fifteen percent of the American child population is black.
“I helped choose the actors and the costumes,” said Marea, who is in fourth grade at Buckingham Elementary in the Central Bucks School District. His valuable contribution earned him the credit of a creative consultant to the director on the film produced by his parents.
The family hopes that by bringing “The Rainbow Prince” to the big screen and to classrooms across Bucks County, they will help foster conversations among all children about their heroes, differences and commonalities.
“They might talk about how similar they are, and that’s how you fight prejudice and honor differences,” Napier said. “Schools seem like the perfect place for both, have a pure audience and reach a lot of kids as well.”