All children need to see themselves reflected in the stories they read, but books should also introduce our kids to others who are different from them. Reading books about different people, places, and experiences is critical to help our children learn about, appreciate, and honor other cultures, as well as become empathetic and informed members of their communities.
President, National PTA
Families play an essential role in providing children with books that reflect the diversity of our world. As parents and caregivers, we have the power to build more diverse home libraries and ensure the books we’re reading to our kids introduce them to people of different races, religions, sexual orientations, genders, and cultures. It is important that we introduce our children to these books early and often.
A good first step is to reflect on your current home library. Then, broaden the types of books in your collection by visiting your local library or bookstore. Following are five goals that can help you select books that include different cultures and reflect diversity, along with tips for where and how to find books that match your family’s interests while exploring new themes.
1. Seek out books that introduce your reader to experiences outside of their own
Children’s books should reflect our experiences, give us a glimpse inside the lives of others, or offer us another world into which readers can escape. This concept includes but extends well beyond racial, ethnic, or sexual identities. For example, read about city living if you live in a rural area, science fiction or fantasy worlds if you typically reach for realistic fiction, apartment living if you’re in a single-family home, the daily lives of children in another part of the world, trans stories if everyone in your family is cisgender, or recent immigrant experiences if your citizenship is established.
2. Read books about families like yours, and actively seek out stories with accurate and respectful representation of identities beyond your own
It takes intention on your part to include stories that celebrate identities beyond your child’s own. The most recent survey of representation in children’s literature shows that stories about white main characters make up more than 40 percent of protagonists, while animal stories comprise another 29 percent. Only 5 percent of books published last year feature a Latinx main character, and a mere 3 percent were about characters with a disability. Keeping these books in circulation, either at your local library or by purchasing them, also signals to publishers that you would like to see more books featuring more diverse main characters.
3. Select stories written by the group of people that the book is about
The phrase “own voices” has been used most recently to indicate that a member of a group is writing from their first-person experience. The author and/or illustrator may be drawing from their experience as a member of a particular racial or ethnic identity or as a member of an affinity group, such as queer or transgender. It’s a good idea to seek out these options when race or culture are a critical element of a book.
4. Avoid stories with tokenism or stereotypical representation of a group
Racial and ethnic identities vary widely, and no group of people should be represented as a token representative of diversity or with stereotyping in either text or visual representation. Are all Black people in a picture book depicted with the exact same skin tone or facial structure? Are people of Asian descent described only by their facial features? Is there only one child with a disability in a playground illustration, and are they shown off to the side? Critically examine representation in the texts you select, both the words and the images, to ensure diversity is celebrated across the spectrum.
5. Avoid stories that depict people in need of assistance, be it financial or physical, as somehow lesser than whole
Homelessness, hunger, and financial insecurity are rarely represented in children’s literature, and grown-ups may steer clear of discussing hefty social issues like these with children because the topics may feel overwhelming. However, conversations around class differences can begin at the earliest age and are best facilitated with thoughtful picture book selections that address those issues with sensitivity.
It is critical that we provide our children with books that reflect the diversity of our world and expand their accurate understanding of the world around them. It is also important that we work with our children’s teachers and schools to advocate for the inclusion of diverse books in classrooms and libraries as well.