Autistic? Or Just “Quirky”?

Recently, I’ve had multiple discussions with parents who are wondering whether their child is autistic, wondering whether they should have them tested, and receiving testing results of “well, we can’t say it’s autism, but we also can’t rule out autism.” I’ve also had conversations with colleagues about children in their classes, where they’ll wonder about a child’s unusual behavior, but also say “but I don’t think they’re autistic, because there’s these other things they do well.”

It’s tricky to figure out what to do about these “maybe?” cases, and trickier still when parents see that their child has challenges, and think they would benefit from support (like occupational therapy or ABA therapy) but their insurance won’t cover it unless they have the diagnosis.

The Autism Diagnosis

When I was a kid, we tended to think of autistic people as ones who showed significant impairment in multiple domains: non-verbal, developmentally delayed, frequently stimming (e.g. rocking). Then there were a bunch of other kids who were skilled in many areas, but had some unusual behaviors. We called them “quirky” or “odd ducks” or said they “march to the beat of their own drummer.”

Then the term Asperger’s syndrome appeared, and was often applied to kids who were gifted and “quirky.” And we would talk about people in terms of “where are they on the spectrum” or “are they low functioning or high functioning?”

Now, Asperger’s is no longer a distinct diagnosis. It’s been pulled under the umbrella of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

The criteria for an ASD diagnosis in the DSM-V are:
A) Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction (deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction and in developing, maintaining, and understand relationships) and
B) Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities (as manifested by at least two of: S
tereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech; Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns of behavior; Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus; Hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory input.)

But within these criteria, there’s a range of behaviors from subtle to blatant, and from minimal impact to major impacts on school and home

What does it mean to be a spectrum disorder?

When autism is described as a spectrum, tt doesn’t mean this (source)

not very

Or this (source)

a little tragic

It means something more like this:

An illustration of a circle where the "pie pieces" are labeled language, executive function, etc. and dots indicate where the person might have more strengths vs. more difficulties

(That image comes from this great comic on “Understanding the Spectrum” by Rebecca Burgess – I highly recommend reading it.)

This graphic (source) breaks the spectrum into five categories, similar to Burgess, though the colors and the way they break things out are a little different:

GAO

And says that “the type and severity of characteristics varies from person to person.”

Picture1

C.L. Lynch on theaspergian.com uses this illustration

spectrum

Then gives a few examples of how this would apply for an individual person.

spectrum 2

I don’t know which one of these graphics might be helpful for you, but I find it very helpful to think of these more nuanced descriptions rather than a single axis of “a little quirky” to “tragic.”

I know that if someone asks me if my son is “high functioning” or “low” or asked “how autistic is he”, I would find it difficult to answer those questions. It’s much easier to tell you – “here are the things he’s good at, here are some behaviors he does that might seem odd to you but don’t harm anyone or anything, and here are some challenges he has and some accommodations you could make that might help him to manage them.”

To Test or Not to Test

I have been a childbirth educator for over 20 years. In that field, we often say – before you get a test, think what you will do with the results and how it will be helpful to you to have the results.

If you are a parent deciding whether to test, or an early childhood professional deciding whether to refer for testing, it’s worth asking that same question.

If there are services that you believe that your child would benefit from that they can only access if they have a diagnosis, then you should get your child tested. If it would be helpful to you as a parent to have a “label” that helps you better understand your child and learn more about what they need, then it’s worth getting them tested to learn more from a professional, whether that’s a diagnosis or just resources for more ideas and support. (My daughter chose to pursue a diagnosis at age 20, during her sophomore eyar of college. For her, the diagnosis came as a relief, because in the past, it was easy to think her “quirks” were her fault and she should be able to fix them herself. Once she had the diagnosis of autism, she was better able to accept that this is just who she is and it’s OK to ask for the accommodations she needs to be successful.)

I can share my own experiences about decision making for my youngest: As a parent, I suspected something was unusual about him from when he was about six months old – when he got overstimulated, he’d bump his head into things or have meltdowns. When he was a toddler, he would perseverate on things – like during one gymnastics class where he told his coach “I am an ankylosaurus” at least 20 times. He had singular obsessions – like the month where he wanted nothing but Cat in the Hat, or the periods where he only wanted to talk about the planets and could easily be calmed by just handing him 8 objects and asking him to decide which one was Mercury, which was Venus, and putting them all in order.

However, he didn’t fit some key stereotypes of autism: he’s very verbal, OK at eye contact, and seeks out social connections. So no professional ever told us that we should seek an autism diagnosis, but I suspected that was where we would be someday.

I learned  about autism and sensory processing disorders, and what accommodations help kids with those challenges, and I just did all those things for him. We chose preschools and activities that were a good fit for him, not ones that we knew would push his buttons. We didn’t have him tested yet, because having results wouldn’t have changed anything about what we were doing.

However, when he started kindergarten, things got more challenging. Luckily his kindergarten teacher was fabulous with him and just naturally did the accommodations he needed. But all of school didn’t accommodate as well. So, at that point, we had the testing done, and received an autism diagnosis, and that has made it easier for us to access the services he needs. For school, he has an IEP which ensures he gets extra support. And now our insurance will cover OT and ABA services for him due to the diagnosis. Those are the upsides of having the official diagnosis. (There is a minor downside… some summer camps and other programs say they can’t take children with autism or can only take a limited number, so there are some programs that are no longer an option for him. Not a big thing, but worth mentioning.) So, doing the testing when we did worked out for us. Your needs may be different.

To refer or not to refer

As a parent educator, I observe the kids in my class. I had one toddler where I had no doubt she was on the autism spectrum and would benefit from early and intensive services. I spoke to that parent early in the year, encouraged her to seek testing, and got her connected to services.

I’ve had lots of other students who were “quirky.” I do developmental screenings in my toddler classes, and this can start the conversation with parents about developmental issues – if it’s a minor delay in one area, I just talk about ways to enhance learning in that area, but if I see more delays, we have a broader conversation about what might be going on there. So far, I have not had another child that I told the parents specifically that they should have them tested for autism now. But, I have shared “here are some things about your child that are a little different than what we see in other kids their age. It could just be a temperament thing or just where they are in their development, but it does make me wonder a bit, so it’s something you could keep an eye on, and check in with me again if it becomes a concern.” I do mention the word autism, because I’ve spoken to parents of 7 year olds who have said things like “I can’t believe no professional we worked with ever mentioned the word autism to us before last  month. If anyone had the courage to have that conversation with us, we could have learned more about accommodations that would have helped us parent him more successfully and access services earlier.”

In my classes, I share my story of having two kids with an autism diagnosis (My older daughter was not diagnosed till age 20, because autism is different in girls and more difficult to diagnose especially for gifted girls). I hope to help people learn more about what autism looks like and how to interact effectively with autistic people.

I also talk about autism differently than the common dialogue. Autism is often treated as a tragic thing. I think it’s better to just think about it as a disability which creates some challenges but can also be accommodated. If a child is blind, or deaf, we don’t expect them to be able to change that, just by “choosing to behave better” or “learning to act normal.” We figure out what accommodations they need to move through the world, and to maximize their potential for a successful life. It’s an accessibility issue.

Autistic people also have unique strengths. For example, many have intense attention to detail, a high degree of persistence, and ability to analyze data. And “Sometimes being autistic means that you get to be incredibly happy. And then you get to flap. You get to perseverate. You get to have just about the coolest obsessions.” (Source)

The Autism Self-Advocacy Network recognizes Autism Acceptance Month, which “promotes acceptance and celebration of autistic people… making valuable contributions to our world. Autism is a natural variation of the human experience, and we can all create a world which values, includes, and celebrates all kinds of minds.”

A Note on Co-Morbidity and Social Issues

Autism also has several co-morbidities: conditions that often occur with autism.  “Over half of autistic youth [also had] attention deficit disorder (53 percent) or anxiety (51 percent), nearly one quarter had depression, and 60 percent had at least two comorbid conditions. Other common comorbid conditions include sleep disorders, intellectual disability, seizure disorders, and gastrointestinal ailments.” (Source) Many of the challenges we think of as related to autism actually come from these co-morbidities. We should think of them as separate issues and handle them separately.

And many of the “challenges” of autism actually come from societal attitudes toward autism. For example, if a child jumps up and down with excitement, is that really a problem behavior that needs to be corrected? If a teenager gets overwhelmed by noises, so chooses to wear noise-canceling headphones in many situations, is there a reason anyone else should care about this? If someone can’t stand it when the different foods on their plates touch each other, isn’t it easy to use just a little extra care when dishing them up instead of using a lot of energy telling them that “they just have to learn to cope with that”? If the neurotypical community understood more about neurodiverse people, it would greatly reduce the “challenges of autism.”

Screening and Diagnostic Testing

If you’re wondering about your child, or a child you know, start with this list of symptoms, or red flags to watch for. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/signs.html

If you’re still concerned, use a screening tool:

If you’re still concerned, talk to your child’s health care provider, and/or contact your state’s public early childhood system to request a free evaluation to find out if your child qualifies for intervention services. This is sometimes called a Child Find evaluation. If your child is under three years old, look at the ECTA website. If your child is 3 years old or older, contact your local public school system.

In King County, Washington, some resources for diagnostic testing include: Kindering (especially for kids under age 3), UW Autism Center (this is where my daughter was tested at age 20), and Seattle Children’s Autism Center. Some private practice psychologists also offer testing. For example, our son was tested by Heather Davis at Brook Powers Group, who had worked with him in their Incredible Years program.

Here is a podcast with tips for what to do when you’re waiting for an autism diagnosis or a PDF on the same topic.

What if they’re NOT diagnosed as autistic?

If your child has been tested for autism, and the diagnosis was “we can’t say it’s autism but we can’t rule it out” you’re in a bit of a bind.

If you feel your child needs services now and you can only access them if you have a diagnosis, you may have to do a fair amount of advocacy. Know that some clinics will refuse families who have already had an evaluation elsewhere – they worry that some parents may just be shopping around for someone who will give them the diagnosis they want and that wouldn’t be in the best interest of the child.

If it is possible for you to wait to pursue a diagnosis, that may work out better. In the meantime, you can learn more about autism, sensory processing disorder, ADHD and other issues. You may discover that there is a description that is a better fit for your child. However, I personally don’t find it helps most people to become overly focused on pursuing a diagnosis – an answer to “WHY is my kid different than other kids.” Instead, you may find it more helpful to think: “given that my kid is who they are, what can I do to help support them?” Learn about how you can accommodate them so they’re not under continuous stress and pressure, while still giving them appropriate challenges so they learn and grow and reach their potential. A few months or a few years down the road, you may discover that they moved through a phase, and are now doing well in school and social occasions. Or, you may discover that things have gotten more challenging for them, and more professionals are on board with a diagnosis, given more evidence.

Resources on Autism and Accommodations

There are lots of resource guides from various organizations. Try these from the Seattle Children’s Autism Center, Autism Parenting Magazine, and the AAP. Plus these communication resources. Note: I have not vetted all these resources. If I discover materials that approach autism as a terrible disease to be cured, or focus on ways to “fix” our autistic kids, I set those aside. I choose materials that talk about autism as a neurological difference that shapes who they are and how they interact with the world, and talks about ways we can increase accessibility for them.

This article is short and helpful: 15 Behavior Strategies to Help Children with Autism.

If handling discipline is an issue for you, I recommend the Incredible Years program. (We worked with Shanna Alvarez in Seattle, who was fabulous.) While the parents meet, the kids attend “Dinosaur School” which teaches social and emotional skills. Note: my Discipline Toolbox is highly influenced by what we learned at Incredible Years.

If emotional regulation is a challenge for your child, check out my post on Big Feelings and the Zones of Regulation approach.

There are helpful resources at https://brightandquirky.com which has webinars with leading experts on how to support kids who are gifted and autistic (or have other behavioral issues).

And for your child, here’s my list of Children’s Picture Books about Autism and other “quirky kids” stories. Seeing themselves reflected in a book might be helpful for them.

 

Talking to Kids about Earthquakes

rabbits-in-a-hole-earthquake-drill-for-preschool

If your child has recently experienced an earthquake, or they heard about one on the news or in a story, they may have questions, or you may want to take the opportunity to teach them safety skills. We want to focus on how to prepare… not scare.

My general approach when talking about any topic that might be scary for a child is:

  • Talk about how likely (or unlikely) this thing is to happen.
  • Address: Can we predict it? Can we prevent it? Can we at least take steps to prevent it from being a big problem?
  • Explain to them how they would know this thing was happening.
  • Teach what they could do if it happened, in order to make things better.
  • Talk about what the grown-ups around them would do to make it better.
  • Reassure them that even if bad things happens to people, people are tough and resilient, and pull together and make it through.

So, let’s walk through questions your child might have:

How Likely Is an Earthquake?

In many parts of the world, the answer is extremely unlikely. In other parts of the world, it’s quite likely your child will experience many earthquakes over their lifetime. I think you can be honest about your situation. If the likelihood is low, that can be very reassuring for your child to know. If the likelihood is high, we acknowledge that and then we focus on how we prepare and how we learn about earthquakes so we can respond if and when one happens.

Can you predict or prevent an earthquake?

You can’t.

Many people say “and that’s what makes it so scary!” It’s normal to feel that way, but that’s not the way to talk to your kids about earthquakes. Say “We can’t do anything to prevent them, and we can’t really predict when one is coming. So instead of worrying about that every day, we just make a plan for what we’ll do if or when one happens. And every once in a while, we practice how to respond.”

How will I know if there’s an earthquake?

Many adults leading earthquake drills for kids teach what to do, but never stop to think about whether a child would  know when to do those things. We can’t assume they would know that an earthquake was happening. It’s important to describe what an earthquake might feel like, using non-scary descriptions. I’ve said things like “If you’re sitting down, it may feel like someone is holding onto your chair and shaking it back and forth. If you’re standing up, you’d start feeling all wobbly, like you’re in a bounce house and the other kids are bouncing a lot.” If you’re ever in a situation where there’s a similar sensation, point it out: “Wow – when everyone in the stadium stomps their feet, it feels almost like an earthquake.” “The way the bridge at the playground sways back and forth sort of reminds me of an earthquake.”

After a recent 4.6 earthquake in Seattle, here are some descriptions people shared: “At first, I thought it was the dog bumping against the bed.” “It was like being in one of those coin-operated beds that wiggle and shake.” “I heard the dishes rattling.” “My dog started barking just before it happened.” “My cat freaked out and bolted out of the room.” “I thought it was a really loud truck driving by.” “There was a big rumbling booming sound like thunder, then my whole house shook for about 20 seconds.” “I thought one of my kids was shaking the bed.” There were also LOTS of people (including my whole family) that slept through the quake and never noticed anything!

Sharing descriptions like these will hopefully illustrate to your child what it might feel like so they can recognize it, but do it in a non-frightening way.

What you DON’T want to do: don’t go online with your child sitting next to you and search for photos and videos of earthquakes. This can be frightening out of context. If they’ve already seen scary images, you’ll need to reassure them and remind them that a news station will always search a whole city for the single most scary image to share. For example, in Seattle, we had a 6.8 quake, and if you looked at the news, it would show a collapsed brick building in downtown Seattle.  But that was the only collapsed building in town. It did not show photos like one my husband took of the worst damage at Microsoft campus, which was of the drink cooler that came open and spilled 20 cans of soda down to roll around on the floor. So be honest with your child, and say that yes, bad things can happen in an earthquake. But it is more likely that they won’t than that they will.

Let your children know that sometimes an earthquake only lasts a few seconds, and you’re not even sure you felt it. Other times it may last long enough for you to take action to protect yourself.

What should they do if there’s an earthquake?

Teach your child this basic method:

  • DROP down onto your hands and knees (before the earthquake knocks you over). This position protects you from falling but allows you to still move if necessary.
  • COVER your head and neck (entire body if possible) under a sturdy table or desk.
    • If there is no shelter nearby, crawl away from windows and things that could fall on you, covering your head and neck with your hands.
  • HOLD ON to your shelter (or continue covering your head and neck) until the shaking stops. Be prepared to move with your shelter if the shaking shifts it around.

A Children’s Book about Earthquake Response

I’ve written a children’s story book to teach this method: It’s called Rabbits in the Hole: A Story about Earthquake Preparedness, and you can download it by clicking on that link

Some additional guidance for parents

This is more than you would teach kids, but it’s worth knowing. (Source for recommendations.)

If you’re with your child, when they drop, cover and hold, so do you. But you cover over them with your own body, and then cover the back of your neck with one hand.

If you are driving: pull over, stay in your car with your seat-belt buckled (and your child buckled in their car seat) until the shaking stops.

If you’re in bed, stay in bed! Lay facedown, cover your head and neck with a pillow and your hands.

What NOT to do:

  • Do NOT stand in doorways. In modern buildings, the doorways are no stronger than other parts of the house. You are safer under a table.
  • Do NOT try to run outside or run around inside the building. Although it is safer to be near an interior wall, away from windows, it’s not a big enough benefit to risk running to another room during an earthquake. It’s better to drop, crawl a few feet to the safest space, cover, and hold.

What Will the Grown-Ups Do?

Explain to children that during an earthquake, if a grown-up is nearby, they will help to shelter the child by putting their body over the top of the child. If the grown-up is not nearby, the child should still drop, cover and hold right where they are and trust that as soon as the shaking is over, their caregivers will come to them as quickly as possible.

After the shaking, the grown-ups will help to make sure everything is safe around them, and they can help by staying calm and listening well to what they’re told to do. If there’s anything that could be dangerous or needs to be fixed, the grown-ups will help to figure that out.

Don’t expose your young child to pictures of cities devastated by earthquakes. That will only frighten them, and that level of damage is beyond their control and ours. If they have seen those pictures, acknowledge that this is possible and it’s tragic, but it’s not likely to happen to them.

Do talk about (or show pictures of) damage that is challenging but manageable. Good ones might be of a grocery store – there may be big spills and some broken glass that the grown-ups would need to take care of, but soon everything will be set back to right.

If you have a story of someone your kids know who experienced an earthquake but everything turned out OK, that’s a good story to tell. (In general, it’s a helpful lesson for children to hear that challenging things can happen to people, and they can be OK. That actually teaches resilience better than telling your kids that nothing bad will ever happen to them.)

I tell stories about the two biggest earthquakes I’ve been in (a 6.8 and a 5.1): in one, we were at a children’s theatre watching a play about Winnie the Pooh, where they were talking about taking the bounce out of Tigger, then the room started bouncing – we all thought it was a special effect at first! We were asked to evacuate the theater after the earthquake, and everyone left calmly, and we went home, so the sad thing was that we didn’t get to see the end of the show, but we were all OK, and our families were all OK. Some people had a few broken things in their house, but nothing too big. The other time, we were at Disneyland watching Fantasmic, and as the pirate ship came around the bend, things started swaying and rumbling. Again, it felt like a special effect. But then they stopped the show, turned up the lights, and asked us to leave the park. So, we didn’t get to see the end of the show, but we did get to calmly evacuate through the back part of the park (the employee areas no one is ever allowed to see) which was super interesting, and we went back the next day and everything was OK. They did have some aftershocks, so after each one, they would close the ride, quickly inspect it, and then go right back to having fun.

Telling a story like this, or any story you know, can help to teach that earthquakes can be a big problem, but more often, they are totally manageable if we stay calm and know how to respond.

More Resources

Outdoor Theatre 2019

Kitsap Forest Theatre, www.foresttheater.com/

Kitsap Forest Theatre, http://www.foresttheater.com/

Outdoor productions of Shakespeare and other plays are a fun way to experience the arts in the summer time. Bring a picnic, spread a blanket out on the grass, and enjoy! (If you prefer sitting in a chair to on the ground, be sure it’s a low profile chair so you don’t block anyone’s view.)

Although you can see Shakespearean tragedies outdoors, I personally prefer big, rollicking shows outdoors – the comedy and music play better in situations where there are Frisbee players in the far distance, dogs sniffing by, and airplanes flying overhead.

Outdoor theater is a good venue for kids because it gives more leeway for squirming and wiggling than an indoor performance with theater rules. However, you should still endeavor to keep kids quiet and well-behaved. Most of the shows listed here are good for ages 7 or 8 and up, but I would save King Lear and Henry IV for teens and up. We have brought preschoolers to shows, but we don’t expect them to pay full attention – bring snacks, toys, and sticker books to entertain them quietly.

Seattle Area:

July 13 and 14 is the Seattle Outdoor Theatre Festival in Volunteer Park in Seattle, which features performances from Wooden O and Greenstage (see above) plus Last Leaf, Theatre Schmeater, Shakespeare NW, 14/48 projects, Versatile Arts, Dacha, Freehold, and Young Shakespeare Workshop. This year, they have several performances labeled “Kids Show!” Free, please donate to support it!

Greenstage Shakespeare in the Park is performing Henry IV, part 2 and Taming of the Shrew this year in Burien, Fall City, Lynnwoood, Maple Valley, and Seattle; their smaller scale Backyard Bard performances are of Merry Wives of Windsor and Measure for Measure at various Seattle parks. Season runs July 12 – August 17. Free, please donate!

Outdoor Trek becomes Outdoor Star Wars… For the past several years, Hello Earth has performed live an episode of Star Trek The Original Series. Simple props like hula hoop and streamer transporters are surprisingly effective and always entertaining. Last year they did Star Wars – A New Hope (R2-D2 on roller skates!), so of course this year is Empire Strikes Back.   Blanche Lavizzo park in Seattle. August 3 – 25. Free. (Donate!!) Schedule here.

Snoqualmie Falls Forest Theatre sadly is not doing a production this year.

Theater Schmeater. 5 performances, July 13 – August 15. Fabulous Fable Factory – The delightful story of an inquisitive youngster who discovers an old factory operated by Mr. Aesop. Seattle parks, free.

Wooden O is doing  Romeo & Juliet (featuring a female and non-binary cast) and Twelfth Night (all male cast). Thurs – Suns: July 11 – August 11. In Bellevue, Des Moines, Edmonds, Federal Way, Issaquah, Lynnwood, Mercer Island, Sea-Tac, Seattle, Tacoma. Free but please donate!

Day Trips or Overnights

Island Shakespeare Festival – Langley. July 5 – September 1. Thursdays – Sundays. Midsummer Night’s Dream, Winter’s Tale, and Inferno (info TBA). Free. (Donate!)

Kitsap Forest Theatre (near Bremerton) is doing Mamma Mia. (They did  Newsies on the weekends from Memorial Day to Father’s Day.) Saturdays and Sundays 2 pm, July 27 – August 18. $34 adults, $18 youth, 6 and under free.

Leavenworth Summer Theatre is presenting Sound of Music, Pirates of Penzance and Hello Dolly. July 6 – August 30, Tuesdays – Saturdays. $14 – 35.

Skagit River Shakespeare Festival (near La Conner, SW of Mt. Vernon). They’ve not yet announced a 2019 season.

Other Summer Arts Opportunities

Library Summer Reading Programs

Library programs for ages 3 – 12 happen all summer long, and include story time and much more.

King County library:  This year’s theme is space themed so the shows are about space, the stars, and science. Go to this page https://kcls.bibliocommons.com/events/search/index, and you can filter for events that work for you, or type the name of a show you want to see into the search bar at the top of the page. Some shows to consider: the Story of the Stars puppet show, Space Dog, and Jammin on Jupiter.

The Seattle Public Library summer reading theme this year is “Explore Your World.”

Movies

I have a full post about cinema morning movies, outdoor movies in the parks, and drive-in theaters: https://gooddayswithkids.com/2019/06/23/summer-movies-2019/

Concerts:

Red Tricycle has already assembled this great Guide to Free (and Cheap) Summer Concerts. It includes info about kid-friendly concerts – some free, some pricey. At the Ballard Locks, the zoo, Issaquah’s Spring Free trampoline, U Village, downtown Seattle, Seattle Center, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Kirkland, Issaquah, Sammamish, Everett, Kenmore, Redmond, and Tukwila. Also check out ParentMap’s listings: www.parentmap.com/article/outdoor-summer-entertainment-for-families-seattle-eastside-north-sound

Other Activities for Kids in the Seattle area:

If you’re looking for other fun ideas for the summer, check out my series on “Cheap Dates with Toddlers and Young Kids”,  or reviews of Eastside Parks or find hands-on STEM enrichment activities for kids age 3 – 7 at www.InventorsOfTomorrow.com.

For school year activities, if you have kids age birth to 7, check out info about info about fabulous classes at local community colleges that are great for kids AND include parent education for you,- register now before they fill up!!

 

Children’s Books as Windows and Mirrors

Child looking at a mirror with windows showing diverse children

“We read to see two kinds of worlds: our own, and the ones we can’t imagine. We read to see ourselves reflected, and to peek into other people’s lives. … Our kids need to read about people not like them to expand their horizons and their empathy.” (Source)

In this post, I discuss:

Windows and Mirrors

Emily Style (in 1988) coined this metaphor, saying: “education needs to enable the student to look through window frames in order to see the realities of others and into mirrors in order to see her/his own reality reflected… The delightful truth is that sometimes when we hear another out, glancing through the window of their humanity, we can see our own image reflected in the glass of their window. The window becomes a mirror!” In 1990 Rudine Bishop expanded this, saying ““Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created and recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience.”

Whether you’re a parent or teacher or both, it’s important to spend some time seeking out books that will be windows and mirrors for the children you read to.

The Power of Mirrors

Here are a sampling of stories from people of times when they first saw themselves represented in media:

  • “Last week I received my 1st book that depicted a character with a disability.  At almost 28 years old, I’ve never read a book where the protagonist was a person with a disability…. I was thrilled to find a book that allowed children to see someone with a disability be a lead character… To grow up not seeing someone who shares similar looks or abilities as you can make a child or adult feel as if people like themselves are not important…” (Source)
  • “Like a unexpected gift from the cinema gods above, came “Bend It like Beckham,” that had one thing all those other theater-packing, Hollywood hits didn’t have…. A brown girl like me… Jess, wasn’t just the nerdy best friend, the submissive shy girl, or the exotic temptress (all tropes that are far too common for Asian women). She was the main character ― a girl with many layers and quirks…  my 14-year-old self couldn’t help staring at Jess… and seeing a kindred spirit.” (Source. Note: at the bottom of that article are links to more first person essays on representation.)
  • I’ve thought long and hard about the first time I “saw” myself in the media ― really saw myself. If representation simply means the cultural presence of people who physically resemble you, then technically, I’ve seen myself as a housekeeper, a teen mother somewhere in the “inner city,” a child soldier, a slave, a nameless face in a crowd…. The first pop cultural moment that really spoke to me as a black girl was…  “Scary Spice” …. she was unapologetically loud and unapologetically fierce… That resonated with me, a shy and awkward kid always afraid of stepping on toes…” (Source)
  • Star Trek (TOS) was one of the first TV series to feature a black woman in a role as a skilled professional. Whoopi Goldberg, who was later featured on Star Trek TNG, said “when Star Trek came on she was nine years old and she turned the TV on and… ran through the house screaming: Come quick, come quick. There’s a black lady on TV and she ain’t no maid.” (Source… and if you follow that link, you get to read Princess Weekes’ take on “Ten Black Female Characters Who Built Me.”) Levar Burton, who starred in Star Trek TNG said “Star Trek [TOS] was one of the very few representations of the future I encountered as a kid where people who looked like me were represented… it’s hard to underestimate the power that seeing oneself reflected in the popular culture… has. It validates you. Absent seeing yourself represented… you are sent … a message that says ‘you don’t matter.'” (Source) Now, Sonequa Martin, star of Star Trek Discovery says “I understand as a black woman… how important representation is… representation leads to actualization.” (Source)
  • “I never consciously noticed that my personal narrative wasn’t depicted in the popular culture. … Growing up, the only Disney character I felt any relation to was Mowgli, from “The Jungle Book.” With my short brown hair and dark skin, I thought I looked just like him. When “Mulan” came out, I at least had an Asian character to dress up as, but even that was a generous pairing. It wasn’t a glaring absence of representation. But when you have never seen yourself in books or movies or music, the first time you do is stunning.” (source)
  • “To not only see LGBT people on my television screen … but to see them loved by others, or in love, is sometimes emotionally overwhelming because these images are new to me.  I am disappointed, however, that I have to feel such joy just to see someone who looks like me — a joy whites, men, heterosexuals, and other privileged groups do not experience because their representation is the norm and, as a result, their presence is treated as the default.” (Source)

What If the Mirrors Are Missing

“Besides teaching us who we are, books are where we learn whose lives matter enough to read about… Exclusion from this world… constitutes a kind of ‘symbolic annihilation’.” (Source)

Megan Quibell talks about wanting to cosplay at a conference, and the impossibility of finding a recognizable character who uses a wheelchair. She says “We need characters in books who are in wheelchairs or who use a cane or are missing a limb or have some kind of condition or something. But I don’t want ‘problem’ books. I don’t want it to be all about how hard it is being in a wheelchair. I just want something fun for me to read that has someone in a wheelchair as one of the main characters. I really don’t think it’s too much to ask.”

The Power of Windows

“Research on prejudice shows that coming in contact with people who are different – so-called ‘others’ – helps to reduce stereotypes. … we learn about them and get closer to them through their story…. while it may be ideal for children to actually meet people from different backgrounds in person, if that isn’t possible, books can serve as a first introduction to an outside world…. Perhaps the next generation will be less frightened of the ‘other’ if they get to meet them and learn about them from an early age.” (Source)

“Stories that respectfully depict diverse characters can open the door to conversations about how we are similar and different, breaking down stereotypes and deepening children’s ability to empathize.” (Source)

“Research from Harvard University suggests that children as young as three years old, when exposed to racism and prejudice, tend to embrace and accept it…. By age 5, white children are strongly biased towards whiteness. To counter this bias, experts recommend acknowledging and naming race and racism with children as early and as often as possible. Children’s books are one of the most effective and practical tools for initiating these critical conversations; and they can also be used to model what it means to resist and dismantle oppression.” (source)

“Stories also help us understand that the world we live in is not what it should be. Stories can help young children understand that racism very much exists in this country, and that power is unequally distributed based on race, class, and gender. For children from dominant groups, window moments in stories come when the children realize they hold a powerful place in society and that there is something unjust about this.” (Source)

What if the Windows Are Missing

In this section, I share stories and quotes about what it means that boys are rarely asked to read books about girls and women. But there are corollaries – for each quote you can imagine substituting in – what if able-bodied people never read about people with disabilities? what if white children never read about people of color? what if….

I don’t think that most people intentionally teach boys to believe that boys are stronger than girls, but it’s the message they get accidentally all the time… If your son only watches or reads things with strong male characters, they’re learning over and over again that boys are strong. So it isn’t so much that they learn girls aren’t strong, they just never really learn that they are. When a boy regularly reads books with strong girls at the center, he is just getting more exposure to learn that girls are strong too.” (Source)

“[Windows matter] to everyone affected by white male privilege, which is fueled further by generations of little boys growing up seeing the world revolve around them and their interests, even in fiction.” (Source)

“When boys grow up believing stories about women are unimportant they lose far more than the opportunity to read great books… Story is a powerful means by which we see and experience, to some extent at least, the world from another’s point of view. Men and boys who are never encouraged to even try to understand, relate and respect the experiences and stories of girls and women are missing out on those valuable lessons in empathy. Books that present women as little more than side-kicks and decorations, rather than fully-formed agents, also help to create and maintain a culture where women are secondary to — and lesser than — men.” (Source)

“For majority students, the absences of others’ stories implicitly teaches them that their communities are of higher value, the default ‘norm.’ They end up less prepared for navigating differences and are less adept at keeping up with our evolving culture than those with more exposure to lives not their own.” (Source)

When you look at required reading lists from schools, there are plenty of books about male characters that all children are expected to read and benefit from. But if female characters are highlighted at a school assembly, boys aren’t expected to even attend. (Source) The consistent message is that stories about white males are for everyone, but stories about all those other people are to set aside for those populations, or for Black History month or another specific limited purpose. If, like me, you are a parent to a white able-bodied boy, it may be even more important to seek out windows into other experiences, as they may be less likely to encounter them in school.

What Counts as Diversity

When we think about windows and doors, let’s think as broadly as we can: “What do we mean when we say diverse books? Some people think only about race or culture, and surely those are a part of diversity. Others say gender identity or sexual orientation, and again those are a part of diversity. But, what about children who are homeschooled, whose parents divorce, who live in poverty, and even those who have happy two family homes?” (source) Or what about characters who wear glasses or have different types of hair? We can seek out all these things!

So, we want to expose children to books that offer a very wide view of the human experience, right? Unfortunately, it’s not easy to find books that represent all experiences. (The good news is that at the bottom of this post, I give you resources to help you find what is out there!) Let’s look at the…

Lack of Diversity in Kids’ Books

Gender Representation

Approximately half of kids are male and half are female. But that’s not true of children’s book characters!

Amongst the 100 best-selling children’s books of 2017, “twice as many of the characters who were given a speaking part and a main role in the story were male – and, on average, there were three male characters present in each story for every two females featured.” And female characters are missing from a fifth of the books ranked. “Only 40% of characters given a gender were human – the rest were, for example, animals, birds, crayons, vegetables and skeletons. [these creatures were] 73% more likely to be male than female. Furthermore, males were more typically embodied as powerful, wild and potentially dangerous beasts such as dragons, bears and tigers, while females tended to anthropomorphise smaller and more vulnerable creatures such as birds, cats and insects.” (Source)

“Why is there a persistence of inequality among animal characters? There is some indication that publishers, under pressure to publish books that are more balanced regarding gender, used animal characters in an attempt to avoid the problem of gender representation (similar to the disappearance of Blacks during the height of the Civil Rights Movement).” (source)

Race

In the United States in 2020 (source), it’s predicted that amongst children under age 18, 50% of children will be white, non-Hispanic, and 50% will be people of color.

Amongst 355 children’s picture books published in 2013… Of the 191 with human characters, 28 (or 14.6%) featured a child of color as the protagonist. If we count all picture books, human children of color make up less than 8% of protagonists. (Source)

It is getting better…. from 2014 – 2017 there has been a significant increase in new children’s books about people of color, but it still has not caught up to their presence in society, and when we factor in all of the classic kids’ books that are still read all the time, we know that the books kids are exposed to are not racially representative.

In 2020, it’s predicted that of US children, 50% will be white, 26% Hispanic, 14% will be black, non-Hispanic, 5.4% Asian-Pacific Islander, and .8% American-Indian or Native Alaskan; 4.4% are multi-racial.) 13% of U.S. residents are foreign-born and about 1 in 4 children has at least one foreign-born parent. (Source) Here’s how children’s book characters break out (Source of illustration):

Disability

13% of US students receive special education services. That includes learning disabilities, speech impairments, autism, ADHD, physical disabilities, and healthy impairments. (source)

Of 698 picture books published in 2017, “A child with a disability appeared in only 21 picture books, and only 2 of those were main characters. Most others appeared in background illustrations.” (Source) So, that’s 13% of kids have a disability, and 0.3% of the main characters in newly written kids books do! And of course, in classic books, the percentage would be lower.

LGBT

Approximately 4.5% of the overall US population identify as LGBT. (source) Among young parents and children, the percentage is much higher than that – only 66% of Gen Z identifies as straight. (source) 0.58% of all people may be transgender, but amongst people 18 – 24, it’s 0.66% (source). As many as 12% of children may have at least one LGBT parent. (source)

Of 3,700 books received at the CCBC in 2017, 3.7% had LGBT content. Of those books about half featured an LGBT primary character, about a quarter featured a secondary character, and a fifth had an LGBT family. (Source)

Who Wrote It

It’s important to look not just at who the characters are in a children’s story, but also at who wrote that story. For example, of 340 books about Africans and African-Americans, only 29% of those were written by African-Americans.

When someone not of a culture writes about that culture, we’re more likely to get a stereotyped or superficial depiction of that cultural experience vs. the nuance we would experience in a book written by people from that background. “There’s a long history of majority-group authors (white, abled, straight, cisgender, male, etc.) writing outside their experience to tell diverse stories. Sometimes the characters and stories they create are wonderful! But … Even when portrayals of diverse characters by majority-group authors are respectfully and accurately done, there’s an extra degree of nuance and authority that comes with writing from lived experience. … For instance, I’m a wheelchair user. I’m intimately familiar with enduring and combating ableism, navigating an inaccessible world, exploring disabled identity … I can list a whole host of tiny everyday details about the physical and emotional reality of my disability that secondary research is unlikely to surface.  I have a lifetime of experiences — positive, negative, neutral, and complicated mixtures of all of the above — to draw from when I write a fuller, more authentic wheelchair-using character.” (Source)

An example from popular media is Asian-American representation. Although we’ve made progress since the Fu Manchu and geisha days, the new stereotypes are of the “model minority — competitive, goal-oriented and hard-working (but, notably, lacking in creativity, charm, sex appeal and humor).” But now we have a recent movie on Netflix, Always Be My Maybe which was written, directed, and starred in by people of Asian-American descent. “In its three-dimensional representations of Asians, the film subverts many stereotypes and tropes typically applied to Asians — making Asians feel seen in subtle but powerful ways.” (Source. Also check out “Why Always Be My Maybe’s Asian American underachiever is groundbreaking” and “Always Be My Maybe from an Asian-American Perspective: Details You Might Have Missed.”) 

What to Look For in Books about Diversity

In addition to considering the author’s background and experience, here are some tips for what else to look for, from The Guide for Selecting Anti-Bias Children’s Books, from Learning Through Literature that Offers Diverse Perspectives by Yokota, and Disability in Children’s Literature by Crow.

  • Check the illustrations
    • Look for stereotypical depictions – like Latino men in sombreros
    • Look for tokenism – the one kid in a wheelchair who appears on one page
    • Look for invisibility – what groups never appear in the books you read (examples: single parents, modern rural families, families with an incarcerated parent, people of Arab descent, service industry workers)
  • Consider the author or illustrator’s background and perspective – what qualifies them to tell this particular story?
  • Are cultural details accurate? current? Are details naturally integrated or shoe-horned in? Is the culture portrayed multi-dimensionally?
  • How real are the  characters and their lifestyles – are they token characters or stereotypes, or fleshed out people working in a variety of jobs, with a variety of relationships and interests?
  • Watch for loaded words: sexist words like firemen instead of firefighter, racist words like savage or barbarian, ableist words like crippled or lame
  • Does the book approach diversity challenges only as individual challenges to be overcome or also as human rights issues – addressing social realities like denied access to public transport or housing, and other systematic oppression?
  • Assess the appeal of the story and illustrations. Sometimes in our aim to expose our kids to diversity, we end up reading boring didactic books with sub-par illustrations, and the children learn to avoid or ignore “those kinds of books.” Above all else, choose good books that kids will like! Don’t feel like every book on your shelf needs to teach a diversity message.

Some more things to consider:

How is Identity Relevant to the Story

Author Corinne Duyvis has a very helpful taxonomy of three different ways diverse identities can be included in books and other media:

  • Issue books are where the identity (and the challenges of it) are the core of the story. So, if the protagonist is African-American, the story is about slavery, civil rights, or overcoming racism to excel in a white world. If there is a character with a disability or illness, the story often is how they heroically “overcome” their disability. We do need issue stories… a story about an LGBT teen coming out may be exactly the story an LGBT teen may need to read, and it may also be exactly the story a cis-het teen needs to read to understand and empathize with other’s experiences. But, they shouldn’t be the only stories told.
  • There is incidental diversity – where the person “just happens” to be in a wheelchair, or “just happens” to be deaf. As Duyvis says “Why shouldn’t an Asian character expose a government conspiracy? An autistic boy become a werewolf? A lesbian girl start a school newspaper? And why shouldn’t they be able to do these things without their marginalized identity ever becoming an issue? Many of us do homework, hang out with friends, or play video games pretty much the same way anyone else would. Our lives don’t revolve around being marginalized, and it’s exhausting to only see ourselves reflected in characters whose entire role is to be different.” So it’s exciting to see an increase in incidental diversity.
  • Duyvis doesn’t name her third category, other than calling it a middle ground. I will call it identity, because the character’s race or gender or ability is a key part of their identity and affects how they move through the world no matter what adventure the story will take them on. As Duyvis says: “In real life, though, marginalized people are affected. …it’s not shameful to acknowledge that. It’s a fact that ableism, homophobia, and racism influence countless aspects of people’s everyday lives. Micro-aggressions, stereotypes, internalized prejudice, flagrant bigotry, institutionalised discrimination… There are also other matters to consider: accessibility, hair or skin care, limited dating pools, communities, culture, etc. … There are many ways to incorporate the above elements into books … which can make characters and their backgrounds ring true to the very readers who may identify with them.” And inform those who are seeing them through the window of the book.

When choosing books about diversity, pay some attention to make sure each of these categories is represented.

Author Kim Hood says “… the more memorable characters in classics tended to have a disability that was cured in some way during the story, as if disability was a “burden” rather than a fact of life… a few more modern [books] include … teens with a disability that also make them super heroes… In picture books, I’m happy to see more children with disabilities in illustrations. I sure would like to see more books that include kids and teens in substantial roles, rather than supporting roles for the sake of token inclusion, though. I suppose I want more diverse characters – those that seem to jump off the page because they are so interesting, and who happen to have a disability. I want there to be characters of all abilities, so that kids growing up today are surrounded by the notion that disability is just part of the fabric of normal life, which is exactly what it should be.”

What Role does the Diverse Character Play

Sidekick? Token? In need of rescue? Gay best friend? Sassy black woman who schools the other characters?

We need stories where people of all types play roles of all types.

“Books with kickass heroines teach both girls and boys about what it means to be female… Unyielding soldiers like …Katniss Everdeen, … brave brainiacs like  Hermione Granger, and more brave and bold individuals … act as role models for their girl readers, [and] serve an equally meaningful purpose for young male readers. … The way we educate [boys], the way we parent them …and the books we choose to share with them all have their effects on the type of men the young boys in our lives will grow up to be. If we want them to have respect for women, we should give them stories that feature healthy, stable, and equal relationships between young boys and girls. If we want them to believe women are strong enough on their own to make choices for themselves, we need to give them stories where the girl is the hero and the savior. Instead of exclusively sharing stories of strong boys riding off into the sunset to save damsels in distress, instead of narratives focusing solely on the plights of male adolescence, instead of a constant dichotomy that divides people into two groups, either strong men or weak women, we should be embracing, sharing, and talking about books that star young female heroines, too. It’s time to tell a new story.” (Source)

Relatable Characters / Situations

While it’s great to have books that totally transport a child through a window into a completely different world, sometimes it’s helpful to find a bridge. For example, a book that shows a child starting school – your child remembers starting school, so can relate to the character, even if the character looks different from them. Or find books with multiple characters… some who are like your child and some who are different: “Make a special effort to find picture books featuring cross-ethnic friendships in particular… Researchers have noted that children under the age of 8 are strongly oriented towards their own racial or ethnic group, so seeing a character who looks like them gives them a character to identify with. Then, when they see that character interact with people from different races, the story functions as a source of indirect cross-ethnic contact for the child—with the potential to improve their racial attitudes.” (Source)

Getting Kids to Read Diverse Books

Often kids look at a book about someone “not like them” and say “it’s not for me.” And I get that. I’m kind of ashamed to say that I sometimes do the same thing… I’ll see a movie featuring all African American characters, and think “it’s not for me.” Here’s the thing, I’m straight and cisgender, yet I watch and read stories with queer characters all the time. And I learn important things about the experience of LGBT people by doing that. So sometimes finding something that looks through that window and looks at issues of race and culture as well ends up being a window I look through. Right now, I’m watching Pose, which is about African-American and Latino gay and gender non-conforming characters. That’s a “look-alike” to things I am already in the habit of watching and reading.

Librarians often look for read-alikes. Ask someone what books (or media) they like, and seek out some that are similar in style or content (and may just happen to feature a protagonist that doesn’t look just like them).

Photo of book covers for a book marketed to girls versus a book marketed to boys

This week, I brought two books home to my 8 year old son. One had a picture of a messy boy and a monster on the orange cover. The other had a sparkly cover with pink and purple and the word princess. Any guesses what he said? Yes, even raised in a very liberal household and community with flexible views on gender identity and expression, he still said “that book is for girls.” I said “you’re right, that the cover has lots of things our society markets as ‘girly’. But the reason I got it was because it was recommended by someone who said if you like Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, you’ll like this book. And they also recommended Big Nate which you love, so you can tell they have good taste. And, it’s by the same author as Dragonbreath!” He then cheerfully took on Harriet the Invincible, and really enjoyed it and asked to get more Hamster Princess books. (Although he did say he’ll read them at home, not where other kids might see. 😦 )

Try not to make assumptions about what your child wants to read. “The gender gatekeepers of books are often librarians, teachers and parents who make assumptions about which books are for girls and which books are for boys.” (Source) Author Phillip Pullman says “I’m against anything, from age-ranging to pinking and blueing, whose effect is to shut the door in the face of children who might enjoy coming in. No publisher should announce on the cover of any book the sort of readers the book would prefer. Let the readers decide for themselves.” (Source)

So, do make a wide variety of books available and let your child choose a wide variety, however, try not push too hard on an agenda and go too far in managing what your kids read. “Kids should be free to read what they choose. … let a lot of that be self-directed…the more we try to proscribe kids’ reading habits, the more joy we suck out of it.” (Source)

More tips on how to get boys to read “girls’ books.”

Talk it Over

After you read one of these great books with your kids, talk about it.

Ask them questions like: How are we the same as the people in the book? How are we different? Do they remind you of someone you know? How are they the same or different from that person? If you don’t know anyone like them, why not? What about their life experience is different from yours? What was easier for them to do than it would be for you? What was harder for them to do than it would be for you?

Resources for Learning More

In this post, I intentionally quoted from lots of great articles on this topic. Please click through to some of those “source” links above to read more in-depth.

In this section, I link to sources for book recommendations. At the top, I’ll list resources that cover several categories, then get more specific.

Multi-Category

The Teaching for Change website includes The Guide for Selecting Anti-Bias Children’s Books and lots of booklists of recommended books that meet their criteria, on topics like culture and language, gender identity, economic class, and family structures.

Diverse Book Finder – a collection of more than 2000 children’s picture books featuring black and indigenous people and people of color, with a search tool. Also includes other diversities, such as faith, adoption, single parents, etc.

We Need Diverse Books has a pageful of links to other people’s lists of recommended books about various cultures, disability, and LGBTQIA stories.

Books for Littles has books on disability rights, gender equality, racial justice, and wealth inequity. They have some great super-specific lists, like “Don’t Yuck my Yum: Books that dismantle orientalism and food shaming” and “Making Friends is Hard – Reassuring Books for Kids Who Don’t Fit In.”

Recommended Multicultural Books

The Colours of Us is a site all about multicultural kids’ books, and they have LOTS of recommended book lists, such as Hispanic Preschool Books and Asian Baby/Toddler Books. (They also have links to multicultural toys, art supplies, and clothes.) I especially like their Multicultural Books for Babies and Toddlers. Babies and young toddlers LOVE books filled with pictures of babies and toddlers. These books include children of all ethnic backgrounds.

50 Multicultural Books Every Child Should Know. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center is the definitive source on statistics about multicultural books, so they know this field! Books by and about people of color and First/Native Nations individuals: African and African Americans, American Indians, Asian/Pacific and Asian Pacific Americans, and Latinos. Divided by age: preschool, 5 – 7, 7 – 9, 9 – 12.

Diverse voices: the 50 best culturally diverse children’s books. From the Guardian, it focuses on the variety of cultures common in the U.K. so covers primarily Africa, the Middle East,  Europe, and the Caribbean. Categorized into preschool, early elementary, upper elementary, and teen.

African and African-American

Black Picture Books that Aren’t about Boycotts, Buses or Basketball. “Shine light on typically ignored aspects of black life.” Include stories from getting a haircut to becoming an astronaut, from travel across the segregated South to going fishing or from church hats to a New Orleans sanitation worker. (Also check out Ten Picture Books that Are Not About Oppression, which show diverse cultures.)

21 books every black child should read is also a great source, plus, you can always check out all those multi-category and multi-cultural collections listed above.

Native American

Picture Books Portraying Contemporary Native Life. “One of the most persistent stereotypes about Native/First Nations people in North America is that they all lived long ago… talk about communities in the present tense.”

17 #ownvoices books about native Americans. Books written by and about American Indians and Canadian First Nations.

American Indians in Children’s Literature. Includes lists of recommended books including the first 10 Native American books to buy for an elementary school library.

Asian and Asian-American

Start with 13 Books that Celebrate All Things Asian, then read this article evaluating trends in Representations of Asians and Asian-Americans in Recent Picture-Books, which also recommends books, then check out 30 more Asian & Asian American Children’s Books, and the catalog of Lee & Low which is the top publisher of Asian-American kids’ books and published many of the books in those other lists.

Muslim

12 Books to Help Children Understand Islamic Faith and Culture. Include stories of  Muslim kids living in the West, children living in the Arab world, folktales, and books that specifically teach important concepts of Islam.

9 Children’s Books that Celebrate Muslim Faith and Culture. All written by Muslim authors, all showing Islam in a positive light.

Muslim Life in Children’s Picture Books. Examines current trends, and includes recommendations.

Refugees and Immigrants

12 Books About Refugees. Books about refugees from many countries, in a variety of historical periods as well as the present day. About the challenges of the journey and experiences in new and unfamiliar places. These are picture books for elementary age children.

Welcome Immigrants! – and New Picture Books about Immigrants.

Gender

Books for Smart, Confident, and Courageous Girls. A Mighty Girl’s book section features over 3,000 girl-empowering books starring stellar Mighty Girl characters. Choose categories of interest to you, and then filter down to exactly what you’re looking for. You could start with their Top 100 Picture Books or something specific like Top Asian Pacific American books.

11 Books to Talk to Kids about Gender Expression plus there are links to several more kids’ books about gender identity at the bottom of my post on Talking with Children about Gender Identity.

LGBT

Rainbow Book List. From the GLBT Round Table of the American Library Association. They publish a list each year, which includes best books published in the past few years. Includes picture books for ages 3 through elementary, plus middle grade and YA.

30 Children’s Books with LGBT characters. 10 books each for pre-k to 3rd grade, 4th – 7th, and 8th grade and up. Includes queer parents and queer kids, both issue books and incidental books.

Diverse Family Structures

Several of the LGBT books above, plus…

Children’s Books to Embrace Diverse Families, 6 Children’s Books that Celebrate Family Diversity. How to Help Children Understand Diverse Families

Single Parents Children’s Books, Best Children’s Books with Single Parents

Picture Books about Divorce and Having Two Homes and Preschool Children’s Books About Divorce.

Disability

Children’s Books About Special Needs. “Didactic books, or books that just simply explain a disability without a good story, are b-o-r-i-n-g, and as a consequence teach nothing.” Here are engaging picture books that touch on a variety of (dis)abilities, including stuttering, visual impairment, wheelchair use, Down Syndrome, and more, including adapting baseball so a snake can play. Preschool and elementary level.

Children’s Books: Portrayals of People with Disabilities. Separated into categories like deaf, speech disorders, traumatic brain injury. Search tool to find exactly what you’re looking for.

Children’s Books About Autism. For autistic children and for neurotypical children, include issue books, incidental books, and identity books. Focus is on books that approach autism as a difference (with its challenges AND its strengths) not as a disability in need of a cure.

Poverty

Picture Books that Illuminate Poverty, Homelessness, and Hunger in America. “As America faces record poverty rates and increasing income disparities, it becomes more and more important that we take action in whatever ways we can. Nothing inspires action quite as much as a good story.” Also: 18 Children’s Books about Poverty and Hunger.