If you live in King County, Washington, you have access to one of the best public library systems in the entire country! And it’s all FREE of charge. Here’s an overview of the services they offer for parents with young children, both in person and online.
Going In Person
There are LOTS of library locations. (Click on that link for directions AND hours.) You may choose a favorite one to go to over and over, or you go on a grand tour and check out a new one every week!
Note: as of July 2021, libraries are all open, but all unvaccinated people over age 2 are asked to wear a mask when visiting the library.
When you arrive, you can go to the children’s section – if you don’t see it right away, just ask someone to point you there. You can choose any book on the shelf and read it to your child then and there, or you can choose to take it home. If you want to check it out, you’ll need a library card. Just go to the information desk and they’ll help you set up an account. You can check out up to 100 books! You can keep videos for up to 7 days and books for 28. You can often renew for longer. (More details on borrowing.) When you’re done with them, return them to any KCLS library.
When my children were little, I allowed them each to have ten library books out at a time. We kept them on a special shelf at home. We went to the library once a week and they could choose which ones they were ready to return, and which they wanted to keep a while longer. If they brought 3 back, they could get three new ones. If they brought all 10 back, they could get 10 new books that week.
On their website at https://kcls.org, you can search for any book you want. The results will look something like this:
You can choose a physical book (and sometimes a book with a CD of the book read aloud); an ebook that you can read on a browser or download to a device; or a downloadable audiobook.
If you choose an ebook or audiobook, and a copy is available now, you can download it right away. (Learn more about downloading e-books.) If a copy is not currently available, put it on hold, and you’ll get an email notification as soon as one is available for download.
If you want a physical book, then place a hold. You’ll then choose a library branch to have it delivered to for pick-up. There are lots of locations all over King County.
If no one else has requested it, you’ll typically have it within a week. If you see that there are something like 83 holds on 12 copies, you know it will be longer. When your book arrives, you’ll get an email. You can go to your library to pick up the book during business hours any time in the next few days.
Once you’ve checked out a book, you have it for 28 days (21 days for e-books). You’ll get an email when it’s due. If you want it for longer, you can renew online, unless someone else has placed a hold on that book.
KCLS has books available in over 20 languages. You can do an advanced search that limits your results to books in that language. Learn more at: https://kcls.org/world-languages
Online Resources available through KCLS
There are several libraries of online children’s e-books. We can access, for free:
Hopefully soon library storytimes in person will return. They are a fun free outing, a good learning experience for your child that will help get them excited about reading. If your family speaks a language other than English at home, they do have storytimes in some other languages, or the English storytimes offer a great opportunity for children (and parents!) to get more familiar with English. They are offering some online storytimes in summer 2021 – learn more at https://kcls.bibliocommons.com/events.
There are several sections of this page – here’s what you’ll find:
Making Life Easier: tip sheets on how to turn events that are often challenging for parents into something more manageable or even enjoyable. Covers: Bedtime / Naptime, Diaper Changes, Going to the Doctor / Dentist, Holidays, and Errands.
Visual Schedules: how to use this powerful tool for teaching routines and expected behaviors: first you do this, then we’ll do that.
Backpack Connection Series: a way for teachers and parents/caregivers to work together to help young children develop social emotional skills and reduce challenging behavior. Handouts on four topics:
Emotional literacy includes being able to understand other people’s feelings, understand your own feelings, and know appropriate ways to express those feelings. One way to teach these skills to young children is by reading books about emotions. Here are some books that are suggested for 1 – 4 year olds.
These are all good books, well worth reading. Personally, rather than buying just one or two of them, I would get them from my library or find them online so we could learn the lessons that several different books have to teach. (Look here for more thoughts on Choosing Books for Children and resources for finding books online.)
When you read any of these books, read them with feeling! Use your voice, your facial expressions and your body language to illustrate / echo the feelings being described on the pages. Stop and discuss some pages with your child: “Have you ever felt that way?” “Remember yesterday, you felt like that… how do you feel today?” “I feel that way sometimes. When I feel that way, I ____.” “If you felt that way, what could you do?”
The Color Monster: A Pop-Up Book of Feelings by Llenas. Video. Great attractive illustrations that pop up! Monster’s feelings are all jumbled up, and they sort them out into jars. “This is sadness. It’s gentle and blue… when you’re sad, you might want to cry or be alone. This is anger. It blazes bright red. When you’re angry, you want to roar and shout… this is calm… all your feelings are in their places now. They are easier to understand when they’re not all mixed together.” It’s a nice approach to understanding the different types of feelings, and could be a good companion to some of the ideas about helping children understand the different intensities of feelings and zones of regulation, as I discuss in my Big Feelings post.
The Feelings Book by Todd Parr. Video. Colorful goofy illustrations. Each page shows one feeling: “Sometimes I feel brave… sometimes I feel like making mud pies… sometimes I feel lonely… sometimes I feel like trying something new…. No matter how you feel, don’t keep them to yourself… share them…” It’s just a nice sampling of all the different ways we can feel and how our feelings change and move on all the time.
When I Am / Cuando estoy (Bilingual) by Rosa-Mendoza. (Video) Nice illustrations of diverse children. Each page addresses an emotion and an action: “When I am angry, I stomp my feet… when I am sad, I hug my bear.” Nice simple overview – I would use it as a springboard to discuss other options for things they could do when they have those feelings.
How Do You Feel? by Browne. Video. “Sometimes I feel bored…. I feel confident, but I can also feel shy.” I like that at the end, it asks “how do you feel” and shows images from all the other pages that allows you to review the feelings. The illustrations of an anthropomorphic monkey do a nice job of illustrating the feelings with color, body language, and other visuals – like on the lonely page, he’s very small.
Lots of Feelings by Rotner. Video. “We have lots of feelings. Sometimes we feel happy. Sometimes sad. We feel angry at times. Loving other times.” Each page has multiple photos of diverse children showing the facial expressions and body language of that emotion. I like the end papers on this book that are filled with feeling words: kind, furious, enthusiastic, perturbed, and many more.
Book series Feelings for Little Children, which includes When You’re Mad and You Know It by Crary or If You’re Angry And You Know It by Kaiser (video). These books can be sung to the tune of If You’re Happy and You Know It, and each gives options for a variety of ways to express that feeling. ” “blow air out,” “shake it out” and “give a shout.”
The book series called Let’s Look at Feelings. Video. It includes books like What I look like when I’m Scared, which shows photos of people looking frightened. It very concretely teaches expressions – “when I am scared, I pull my chin in and frown.” This might be most appropriate for children who really have a hard time intuiting people’s feelings and need this to be very literal, such as autistic children.
The Way I Feel Books books, like When I Feel Sad (video), or Angry (video) talk about some of the reasons someone might feel that way, lets them know it’s OK to feel that way, and that the feeling will pass. They’re great for age 3 – 5.
A Is for Angry: An Animal and Adjective Alphabet by Boynton. Video. Although I’ve read HUNDREDS of books to my kids, I own only a very few favorites. This is one of my favorites. “A is for Angry Anteater, B is for Bashful Bear… O is for Outraged Opossum.” So fun to read… with feeling! It just teaches words / moods – doesn’t provide info on what to do with your feelings.
There are lots more options, like Today I feel silly by Curtis; The Way I Feel by Cain, My Many Colored Days by Dr. Seuss, and Glad Monster / Sad Monster by Ed Emberley. Find more ideas in this list from Zero to Three. And here are more videos from the Feelings Channel.
I have lots more recommendations for books, including: toddler favorites, “books that sing”, books about science, children’s books about autism, and more. Find all the links at the bottom of my post on Choosing Books for Your Child.
Note: In the list above, the book title is an Amazon affiliate link which will take you to all the info on the book. If you then purchase anything on Amazon, I do get a small referral fee, with no additional cost for you. The “video” links are to YouTube videos where you can see the book and hear it read aloud. Some of these videos were created by people with permission to do so; others may be copyright violations – I encourage you to purchase the books you like best and support their authors and illustrators.
We know that children learn through novelty and repetition. Through being exposed to new experiences and new ideas and by being given the chance to do those activities and explore those ideas over and over again. Books are one place this can play out. When my children were young, we always read two books at bedtime. My child gets to choose one and I choose the other. Children will often have a favorite of the moment, and that’s great! Reading that same book over and over gives them the learning benefits of repetition. I can then make sure we’re reading one new book each night to balance that with novelty. Or, if they’re always seeking new books because they’re “bored” of the old ones, I can return to one we’ve read before, reading it slowly and finding new things to point out in it and new things to talk about, teaching the depth of understanding that can come through literature at all ages.
We read a few hundred kids’ books a year at that rate. And yet… our family only owns about 20 children’s books, carefully curated from those hundreds I’ve read. We only buy and keep the most special of them all. This is better for our budget, better for the environment, and also helps to avoid the overstimulation of a house full of too much stuff. So, how do we access all those great books?
Your Local Library
We make extensive use of our local library. When my kids are little, we always have ten library books in the house per kid. We go to the library once a week – we take back any books we’re done with, but keep the ones that we still want to read. Some weeks we bring back ten and take home our ten for novelty. Other weeks, only one or two books exchange as we keep reading and re-reading the current favorites. We are blessed with one of the best library systems in the country, where we can peruse the library catalog online, choose our favorite books and put them on hold – within a few days, the books are delivered to our local branch for a quick pickup. But even in a small library system, there’s plenty of children’s books to read! Also, ask your librarian about interlibrary loan – they may be able to access books from other libraries, such as the Diverse Book library.
Hoopla is a digital media service offered by public libraries that allows users to borrow movies, music, audiobooks, ebooks, comics and TV shows to stream or download for free. Over 1500 library systems in the US and Canada subscribe to Hoopla. Go to www.hoopladigital.com and click on “get started” to find out if your library offers it. Here’s some of the STEM resources on Hoopla. I like that you can set Hoopla to “kids’ mode” on your computer so it only offers kid-appropriate materials.
This is a subscription service – $9.99 per month for a library of 40,000 e-books, including picture books, read-to-me and audio books. I have not explored it, but it looks good.
Online Reviews and Samples
When I’m looking for a new book to read for a class, I make extensive use of online reviews, such as those on Amazon, GoodReads, and Barnes and Noble. As with all online reviews, I take them with a grain of sand. Sometimes something that troubles one reviewer is a plus for me. And sometimes a book they say didn’t appeal to their child for a particular reason might lead me to think it’s the perfect book for my kid! But reviews give you a good sense of what to expect.
On Amazon, many books have a “look inside” feature that lets you check out a few pages. I find this especially helpful for assessing reading level. Sometimes their age guidelines say one thing, and then I look at the sample text, and I think it’s better for a different developmental level than they suggest.
If there’s a book you want to try out, search for it on YouTube. For example, search of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar read-aloud”. You’ll find LOTS of videos of people reading the book aloud and showing the pictures. Some of these videos are excellent quality. Some are not – sometimes it’s hard to see the pictures well, some folks are not enjoyable narrators to listen to. But it’s a good way to check out a book to see if you like it enough to get your own copy. I have also used these videos when teaching online classes – I mute the audio track and read along, using my own voice.
I think it’s important to note that while some publishers and authors have given permission for the use of their books in this way, many of these videos are a violation of the copyright of the author. Please do support authors by buying the best of these books.
Where to Buy
If you’re looking for just any kids’ books, you can often find them cheap at garage sales, thrift shops, and used book stores. Or, check to see if you have a local Buy Nothing group or similar group on Facebook in your area.
When you are looking to purchase a specific book new, consider purchasing through your local, independent bookstore. You can often call and place an order and they’ll have it waiting for you when you arrive. If they don’t have it in stock, they can order it for you. You can also check out Book Riot’s list of independent bookstores around the country, many of which will ship books anywhere, or check out IndieBound, where you can choose to shop directly from them but some of the proceeds are sent to independent bookstores, or you can choose “shop local” to be transferred to your local store’s website to complete the purchase. Shopping locally benefits your local community, reduces the environmental impact of shipping, and supports jobs in your community.
If you do choose to purchase at Amazon, consider either:
Use Amazon Smile where a portion of the profits are donated to a charity of your choice – at no extra cost to you.
Follow an affiliate link. Many bloggers (like me) use affiliate links in their book recommendation lists. If you follow that link, then purchase any product on Amazon, that blogger gets a small referral fee – at no extra cost to you. It’s a good way to support people whose work you find helpful. So, pick your favorite blog that uses affiliate links, and bookmark it, and anytime you want to shop at Amazon, go through that link.
I include lots of book recommendations on my blogs! Here are links to several of those resources:
On this blog, I have 11 “Fun with Toddlers” posts. Each has ideas for crafts, songs, activities, and best toddler books on themes like: babies, farm, stars, springtime.
My post on Childrens’ Books as Windows and Mirrors talks about why it’s important to read books to children that include people of all races, religions, abilities, genders, and more. We should include books that “mirror” their experience and books that give them “windows” into other experiences. It includes links to LOTS of book recommendations for all ages of 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)
Here are the topics I discuss in this post. (TL;DR: If you want a shorter discussion, in a handout form, click here for the PDF.)
the importance of “windows and mirrors” and children seeing a wide range of human experience in the stories they hear
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
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)
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)
The Cooperative Children’s Book Center keeps statistics on children’s books, and what identities are represented by their protagonists. Here is a comparison of US children vs. lead characters in children’s books in 2012 vs. 2018.
It is getting better…. from 2012 – 2018 there was 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.
Many children’s books actually feature non-humans as main characters (animals, trucks, and so on. Here’s how racial representation compares… note how non-human far outstrip Latinx characters. (source)
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.
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.”)
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).
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)
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. (BTW, if you’d like recommendations for books and movies for grown-ups that provide windows into diverse lives, check out Seeking Out Diverse Media.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.