How Diverse Are the Books You Read to Your Kids? Here’s Why it Matters

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As parents, we make a lot of choices for our kids that we hope will prepare them for the world we live in. Choosing which books we read with them is a great first step. I’ve always known the importance of reading, of fostering a love of books and of establishing calming and loving bedtime routine, but I hadn’t really thought that the choice of books could be impactful. To me, it felt like any book the kid was into was a fine choice.

Then I was made aware of a campaign that has been gathering quite a bit of momentum and media attention: We Need Diverse Books.

I began scouring the bookshelves at my library for books that fall outside of my white, middle-class, traditional-family-structure vantage point. I reached out to We Need Diverse Books, and I got to speak with Allie Jane Bruce, who is a Librarian for the non-profit organization.

I had a lot of questions about what qualifies as a diverse book and I wanted her take on why reading diverse books is important.

Bruce defined a diverse book as one that “recognizes that power structures in our society confer dominance to some groups along different aspects of identity, such as race, gender expression, sexual orientation, and ability.”

Diverse books feature racial and cultural differences, disabilities, LGBTQIA characters, religious and economic differences. One of the more obvious advantages to having access to these kinds of books is that children from every background will be able to find characters that they can closely relate to. Every kid wants to see themselves in the characters they read.

What I hadn’t considered as much, was that my kids, who have no problem finding white, able-bodied, middle-class kids in literature, would also benefit greatly from reading other narratives. Bruce pointed out that we want our kids to read books in part so that they are prepared for the world they are entering into. A big part of this is acknowledging whiteness.

I didn’t exactly know what this meant, but Bruce explained that as a teacher, she was checking in with a student who was drawing a picture of a child. He had wanted to color the child so he would be “normal.” What he had really meant was that he wanted to child in the picture to be white. I can see that it is important to distinguish “normal” from “dominant,” and to work to change the balance of white dominance in our world.  I also want my kids to understand that they have certain privileges, because I want them to be understanding and compassionate and to not to take these privileges for granted. These are conversations I want to have with them, and some of the best conversations we have are while we are reading books.

There’s sort of a knee-jerk reaction for us as parents to downplay differences. Of course we don’t want our kids to point and loudly comment on someone’s difference. But at the same time, kids notice them. I’d rather discuss these differences curled up in bed, where my kids can ask me questions and I have the time to pause and think of thoughtful answers.

One of the big priorities for the We Need Diverse Campaign is to push publishers to put out more diverse books. So many groups are sorely under-represented. I asked Bruce if there were any groups in particular that were hard to find on the bookshelf, and without pausing she told me that she wished there were more Native authors and narratives–not just because they are under-represented, but because they have so often been misrepresented, stereotyped, and de-humanized.

There are ways we, as parents and readers and consumers can do our part to encourage publishers. “Buy your kids diverse books. Give them as gifts,” Bruce suggested. “Read them. Request them at the library.” If a books isn’t at your library or your bookstore, ask them to stock it. I’ve always felt rather proud of the fact that when shopping for gifts for children, I often buy them books, but now I plan on being more intentional to buy diverse books.

If you’re looking for lists of books, the We Need Diverse Books website is a great place to look. And beyond that, I asked Bruce for her recommendations, and I was floored at how many amazing and diverse books there are that I hadn’t even heard of. These start from board books and go all the way up to books for teens.

Add some of these to your shelves, because I know I’m going to.

Mommy, Mama, and Me, by Lelséa Newman, Illustrated by Carol Thompson

Whose Toes Are Those, by Jabari Asim, Illustrated by LeUyen Pham

Tiger in my Soup, by Khashmirah Sheth, Illustrated by Jeffrey Ebbeler

King For a Day, by Rukhsana Khan, Illustrated by Christiane Krömer

Separate is Never Equal, by Duncan Tonatiuh

Lulu and the Duck in the Park, by Hilary Mckay

Ling and Ting: Not Exactly the Same!, by Grace Lin

Indian Shoes, by Cynthia Leitich Smith

The Real Boy, by Anne Ursu

One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams-Garcia

Cool Salsa: Bilingual Poems on Growing Up Latino in the United States,Edited by Lori M. Carlson

If I Ever Get Out of Here, by Eric Gansworth

Beyond Magenta, Written and Photographed by Susan Kuklin

A Wreath for Emma Till, by Marilyn Nelson, Illustrated by Philippe Lardy

Climbing the Stairs, by Padma Venkatraman

What are some of your favorite diverse books?

Image: anjanettew


4 thoughts on “How Diverse Are the Books You Read to Your Kids? Here’s Why it Matters”

  1. I have always read diverse books to my children. I have not found it difficult to find picture books and chapter books with a range of culturally diverse characters. Books with different family structures, with women leaders, with racially different friendships or main characters, people from religiously diverse backgrounds, immigrants, learning differences, city life/country life, etc. Sometimes just choosing a story with animal characters of different species tells the same ideas. I have made a point of having stories depicting the histories of minority groups available for older children. I have also made sure to have stories that make ethnic or cultural specialties be positive… also stories that share how sad prejudice is.

    I think Patricia Polacco writes beautifully diverse stories- Mrs Katz and Tush, etc. “The 100 Dresses” is a story about immigrants and the pain of being seen as different. also poverty. That’s an old story but the emotional lessons still apply today. Another book called “tatterhood” is all fairy tales with female heroes!

    I always felt it was important to cover all kinds of emotional topics too. Choosing emotionally diverse stories allows for discussions of feelings and relating the story to one’s own life. I think it tells kids’ it’s ok to have all kinds of feelings and how to cope with them… perhaps before they even have them.

    It helps to have access to the library, and to inexpensive books through garage sales, rummage sales and thrift shops, and things like Scholastic book orders- Scholastic in particular makes it easy to find a lot of diversity in reading. I grew up in a community that was almost completely white. I also grew up in the country. I wanted my kids to be more exposed to a diverse range of people but I did not want ot live in the city…. the country life tends not to be filled with minorities so I made sure I provided it to them other ways. Including hosting a NYC child through the Fresh Air Program… which has been a positive experience for all.

  2. I cannot recall a children’s book with high racial diversity from the top of my head. Nevertheless, there are four novels about children and teens with physical disabilities:
    “From Anna” is about a girl who has vision problems;
    “Brother Lionheart” is about two brothers, and one of them is seriously ill and not as popular among kids as his elder brother;
    “Fullmetal alchemist” is not a book, but a manga, nonetheless, the brilliant one. Main characters, two brothers, both have disabilities: the elder one has an artificial leg and an artificial arm, and the younger one has no body at all (he lost it during an experiment). Theme of tolerant attitude to another race or religion is also touched in this manga many times;
    “Дом, в котором” (“The house in which”) tells about a boarding school for children and teenagers with disabilities (wheelchair users, a guy without arms, a blind guy, etc.). Although it is oriented on teens and adults rather than on little children. Also, it is just a great fantasy novel, I need to say.

  3. Enjoyed your article. Diversity should also include (I presume) issues which appear to be non-issues such as boys needing recognition and affection “too” if they are to grow up emotionally and physically and sensually healthy. When I worked with troubled children nearly 50 years ago, I wrote a story that “my kids” really enjoyed. That story was finally published in 2012 as Please Daddy Hold My Hand (a comic book -which boys really liked) and in 2014 as Hold My Hand (a children’s book). It is illustrated by a young man in his mid teens who asked me to mentor him as a visual artist – which I did for decades. . . He now own his own comic book studio and has published some well recognized stories and illustrative work.
    I had written Hold My Hand as a story to be read to a child in order for that child to realize and “know” that his feelings were being taken into account. and respected.
    The most wondrous remarks I get from parents is that their son wants to have Hold My Hand read to them at night, every night (!) before going to sleep. I didn’t expect the little book to get rave reviews from boys. I was actually trying to reach fathers. . . Just thought this concept fit into the diversity ideal. Thank you.

  4. We love “Amazing Grace” by Mary Hoffman.

    Also, “My name is Yoon” by Helen recorvitz

    And “Clara Lee and the apple pie dream” by Jenny Han

    “Bee bin bop” by Linda sue park.

    As an Asian Americans, its nice to see ourselves in books , but hard to find as Americans and not just foreigners.

    Thanks for this post. Looking forward to checking out the list.

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