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.
Disability Visibility for Kids from King County Libraries recommends 88 fiction and nonfiction titles featuring people living with a variety of disabilities, chronic conditions, and neurological diversities. Designed to promote understanding, acceptance and a celebration of differences! Ages 3-12.
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.
As a parent of autistic children, and as a parent educator and children’s teacher, I wanted to find picture books for young children that could:
offer insights to neurotypical children to help them to understand the autistic perspective better and how to interact with autistic peers in a supportive way
give autistic children the chance to see their experience reflected in a book
give adults more insight into the experiences of autistic children (I am a firm believer in the fact that sometimes when an adult is reading a book to their child or hearing a book read at a story-time or in a children’s sermon, they can have a-ha moments… somehow the simple evocative words of a children’s story can give us clearer insights that get past our previous assumptions or biases.)
It is important to me that the books talk about strengths of autistic people and the unique contributions that neurodiverse people can make if their needs are accommodated, not just about their challenges or the ‘inconvenience’ of accommodations. It is also important that the books accept that autism is a fundamental part of who the person is, not a disease that can be cured if someone can just learn not to “act autistic”. (Read my post on Autism Acceptance Month, or materials from the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network.)
It is hard for me recommend a single “best book”, because they may serve different purposes. Some may be good for an autistic child, some may be better for neurotypical siblings or classmates. Also, autism presents in a very wide variety of ways, so you can’t read just one book and get whole story of autism. I’ll list the books in alphabetical order below, with my review, to aid you in finding the right books for your needs.
A Friend Like Simon by Gaynor.* Ages 4 – 8. Reviewer Macy McArthur says “…great at showing a neurotypical child’s process of being introduced to someone with autism for the first time, being honest about not understanding his differences/hesitant to befriend him, then to growing comfortable and realizing his autism is just a normal part of Simon [and] easily accepting Simon…” Note: The children exclude a girl, Hettie, for being mean to Simon – some reviewers recommend just skipping this last page, so as to not endorse excluding anyone.
A Manual for Marco: Living, Learning, and Laughing With an Autistic Sibling by Abdullah, illus by Tejpar and Abdullah.* Ages 6 – 9. The story is told from the perspective of an 8 year old girl with an older, autistic brother. She makes a list of all the things she likes and does not like about her brother’s autism and when she’s done, she realizes she has written a “manual” for understanding her brother. Endnotes with additional tips. Engaging way of giving a factual overview about autism and how to interact with an autistic child.
All My Stripes: A Story for Children with Autism by Rudolph & Royer, illus Zivoin. 4 – 8 years. The main character is a zebra with autism, who comes home from school distressed by how the other children view him, and his challenges with interacting with them. “They were talking about a video game I play all the time, but I didn’t know how to start talking to them. I started talking about all the things I knew about the game, but since I was staring at the floor, nobody knew I was talking to them… I started talking louder… How come all anyone sees is my autism stripe?!” His mother tells him she sees many stripes (his pilot stripe, his caring stripe, his honesty stripe and his curiosity stripe). He feels better, saying “[My autism stripe is] just part of me… I love each stripe, because without them, I wouldn’t be me.” Nice book for autistic children or NT, about the strengths and challenges of autism. Great illustrations! Includes a lengthy reading guide for adults where they walk through each of the ideas presented in the book and talk about it in detail to further explain how they reflect the experience of an autistic child. Also includes a lengthy note to parents and caregivers about signs of autism, information about evaluation, treatments, and advocacy for support at school.
Andy and His Yellow Frisbee by Thompson.* Ages 5 – 8. Tells a story of Andy who is non-verbal and spends his recess time spinning a yellow Frisbee round and round. A girl who is new to school notices him. Andy’s sister is protective of him, but clearly accepts and cares for him. Several reviewers praised this book as an effective way of demonstrating acceptance of autism and finding commonalities between Andy’s frisbee and the neurotypical child’s decision to bring a teddy bear to school with her as a comfort item. One reviewer found it stereotypical and another felt Andy was treated as a “novelty act.”
Autism Is…? by Wideman… Ages 4 – 8.* Written by a grandmother of an autistic person. Aimed at autistic children rather than at neurotypical siblings and classmates. Describes a wide array of symptoms rather than stereotyping to a few. Review ahuser says “clear, easy to understand, somewhat positive light but also touches on explaining some struggles that come along with autism. It does not use figurative language like some of the other books do, which is very helpful because my daughter, and many others who are on the spectrum, take words literally.”
Ethan’s Story: My Life With Autism by Rice.* Ethan Rice was diagnosed with autism at age 4. He wrote this book at age 7 to help kids understand his challenges and strengths in his own words. Good as an introduction to one child’s experience of autism. It would be a good supplement to other books that give a broader view.
The Girl Who Thought in Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin by Mosca, illus Rieley.* 4 – 8 years. Sample text: “Unique from the start, an unusual girl. She loved spinning in circles and watching things twirl. But some things she hated, like certain loud sounds, or bright crowded places, large cities and towns.” The rhyming couplets and simple language makes this accessible for young kids. There’s supplementary material at the back, telling more about Temple’s life and accomplishments. A positive description of autism. Also a good example of how to write engaging biographies for young children.
I Love Being My Own Autistic Self by Landon Bryce. Age 6 to adults. A comic written by an autistic self-advocate with an MS in education. This book offers great insights. Vector, the narrator, says “There are good things about my autism. I have interesting and unusual ideas… I’m very observant… I am able to focus very intensely… sometimes it makes people uncomfortable when I talk about the good parts of my autism… they might think I’m saying I don’t think autistic people need support or treatment, but I think those can be good things… Even though I’m proud of being autistic, autism is very hard for me and I know it can be even harder for other people… it’s hard for me to communicate… I’m scared a lot of the time… I find unexpected changes very upsetting.” We also meet his friends, one of whom has Asperger’s, one is non-verbal autistic, so there are a variety of depictions of the autism experience. We meet his friend Pang, who says things like “if you just tried a little harder, you would seem perfectly normal”, his sister who thinks the best way to help autistic people is to help them be like neurotypical people, and Dr. Chip who wants to prevent or cure autism. Vector says “I think we can help people like my friend Marko by … paying attention to the things they say without using words… I think we need to accept everyone for who they are in order to really help them. I want Marko’s life to be easier but I want it to be his life.”
I See Things Differently: A First Look at Autism by Thomas. 4 – 7 years. Written for NT children to introduce autism and the ways that autistic children may behave because their brains work differently. It’s an OK book – if it’s the choice that’s available in your library – I think it does an OK job of explaining autism in a way that, on the surface, is sensitive and caring. But if I were choosing a book to buy, it wouldn’t be this one, because it has a bit of an us vs. them feel to it… here’s what we can learn about those people. The author also seems to have a subtle bias that people with autism are often unhappy. This shows in the illustrations and the words: “do you know what it feels like to be worried or nervous or scared… people who have autism feel these things a lot… people with autism may find big crowds or loud noises very frightening… they may move their bodies in ways that look strange to you… being with more than one person at a time may be upsetting… With love and support… people with autism can learn to feel a little happier and safer each day.” A few illustrations do show happy children playing with a car or lining up pencils or flapping while working on a puzzle or sitting in just the right chair, but none of the words talk about happiness in autistic children. (Check out The Obsessive Joy of Autism for insight on the upsides to autism.)
Ian’s Walk: A Story about Autism by Lears, illus Ritz. Age 5 – 8. Julie wants to go to the park with her big sister, but her little brother wants to come along. Ian is autistic, and on the walk, she notices how different he is – he doesn’t like smelling the things she likes to smell, the noises that bother her don’t bother him but he seems to hear things she can’t, he wants to lay on the ground instead of throwing cereal to the ducks with her. Then Ian gets lost and Julie knows how to find him because she knows what he likes best. On the way home they walk the way Ian likes to walk and Julie doesn’t try to change him, she just waits patiently. Sweet, conveys all the ambivalent emotions siblings may feel, including loyalty and love, so a good choice for siblings to see some of their own experiences reflected. (Reviewers on Amazon felt that Ian was one particular view of autism, and noted that autism presents in lots of different ways.)
Leah’s Voice by Demonia, illus Turchan. 6 – 8 years. (Inspired by two real-life sisters.) Logan is excited to have her friend Abby over for a playdate, but Abby doesn’t understand why Logan’s older sister Leah doesn’t say hi till Logan reminds her to, and why Leah gets up and walks away in the middle of a game. Abby tells Logan that she doesn’t like being around Leah. The family tries to go to a movie, but Leah starts screaming and runs away. The parents sit Logan down because they’ve decided that Logan is old enough now to tell her that Leah is autistic. (Side-note: personally, this is something that I would have been speaking to my child about all along, not saving up for “the Talk”.) They describe it as “a disorder that makes it hard for Leah to talk to us and sometimes things upset her that wouldn’t upset you or me.” They say “it’s not something that will go away, but we see Leah handle things better all the time. And we can try to see the world a little like Leah does.” The book ends with a focus on how Leah is good at creating art. I think the best audience for this book would be a child in Abby’s situation – where one of the child’s friends has a sibling with autism, and the book could help give the “Abby” some empathy and insight into “Leah and Logan’s” life.
Looking after Louis by Ely, illus Dunbar. 6 – 9 years. Tells about Louis, a new boy at school. A few children try to connect with him – he tends to echo words and not connect in the way they expect. But then one day a boy named Sam engages Louis in a soccer game – if his foot touched the ball, he shouts “Great Game Louis”. Louis draws a picture of the game. Louis, a boy, and Louis’ aide go out to play more soccer. Although the book doesn’t call Louis autistic or educate about general tendencies of autistic children, it is a specific story that illustrates how an autistic child would be integrated into a mainstream classroom where they would be asked to participate in some activities to the best of their ability but also exceptions to the rules would be made to accommodate their challenges.
Lucy’s Amazing Friend: A Story of Autism and Friendship by Workman, illus Raynes.* Age 6 – 9. A girl named Lucy sees Daniel, who is autistic, non-verbal and has an aide at school. She befriends him. The teacher describes Daniel in somewhat deficit terms “People with autism sometimes have a hard time speaking and understanding things that come easy to us.” In the sample pages, the other children shun Daniel and think he’s weird. The description says that Lucy tries to change their minds, but I don’t know if she is successful at that or if she remains his only friend.
Maybe Autism Is My Superpower by Ben Blanchet, illus by Lily Blanchet.* “After seeing a superhero movie, Ben Blanchet, a thirteen-year-old boy who has autism, decided that maybe autism is his superpower. This book details a fascinating conversation between a mom and her son who has autism. Ben describes the unique ways he hears, sees, and thinks about the world around him.” There’s not an age guideline or a sample text, so I don’t know what age it is aimed at. Reviewers find it a positive approach to seeing the unique strengths of ASD through the eyes of an autistic person.
My Brother Charlie by Peete & Peete, illus Evans. Age 5 – 9. (Written by a mom and sister to an autistic boy.) Callie and Charlie are twins. Charlie is autistic. This book is written by a mother and a sister of an autistic person, and it shares a sweet and compassionate story that I think will appear to siblings of autistic children. Although she talks about the challenges – “it’s harder for Charlie to make friends. Or show his feelings. Or stay safe.. And there are days it’s hard to be Charlie’s sister – he can ruin the best playdates.” She also talks about all of Charlie’s special strengths – “he knows the name of all the presidents! He’s a fish in the water. He has a special way with animals.” And about the way they connect to each other – “he laughs when we lock fingers in a holding-hands game. That’s Charlie’s I love you.”
My Brother Daniel by Berger, illus Deveau. By a parent of an autistic child. Tells about a little boy coming to terms with his brother’s autism – Daniel flaps, spins, and shouts, and the brother wants people to also notice his strengths.
My Brother is Autistic by Mallinos, illus by Fabrega. Available in English or Spanish. 6 – 9 years. A story of a boy whose brother Billy is autistic. In the lunchroom, another boy steals a cookie from Billy. Billy has a big meltdown that embarrasses his brother who runs from the room. The teacher tells the class about people with autism who were successful or famous, then explained the challenges of being autistic. As Billy and his brother walk home, they play together. This is not a book I would use to introduce autism to NT or autistic kids because it’s more focused on deficits and not on what kinds of support would help autistic kids become successful adults. I might use it with a sibling who was coping with embarrassment at school if I thought it would be helpful for them to have a story to relate to.
My Friend Has Autism by Tourville, illus Sorra. 5 – 8 years. At first glance, this is a sweet story about a neurotypical kid who is friends with an autistic boy named Zack, with whom he shares a huge interest in model airplanes. Our narrator is patient with Zack’s different needs: “When I go to Zack’s house, I bring my own models. It bothers Zack when other people touch or play with his models. Each plane has to be in just the right place.” However, there are problematic issues with this book. Amazon reviewer supremeox says “[on] the third page [was] an offensive and unacceptable message… ‘Did you know? Autism is a brain-based disorder. With autism, parts of the brain don’t grow the way they should. No one knows why some kids have autism. There is no cure.’ … Right away the message is that the autistic person is defective…. it promotes the idea that autism is a disease. Autism is not a disease, it is an alternate brain development.” Amazon reviewer Christina N, who is autistic, says “The basic message is to like this kid, ALTHOUGH his brain doesn’t work right. There is nothing wrong with autism. Sometimes it’s hard to be autistic. But I want my fiends to like me BECAUSE I am different and because of my personality in general, not ALTHOUGH I am different. ”
My Friend with Autism by Bishop and Bishop.* Age 4 – 8. Written by a mother of an autistic person. Book description: “Written for classmates of spectrum students and the classmates’ parents… explains in positive ways that children with autism are good at some things, not so good at others – just like everyone else! ‘Notes for Adults’ offer parents more detailed information.” Amazon review by Scotty’s mom says “The book is primarily a picture book, in black and white drawings that can be used as a coloring book. The text is very well written, with particularly good points about ASD kids: lack of understanding of social cues and emotions, hypersensitivity to sound and light, poor ability in talking, and the need and desire for friendship nonetheless. I highly recommend this book for elementary grade teachers to read to and with the class. …The only drawback with this book, in my opinion, is that the ASD child is constantly featured with a smile on his face, and sometimes with good eye contact and body position. As you all know, it is a rare ASD child who smiles that often and who makes good eye contact.”
Nathan’s Autism Spectrum Superpowers by Yarborough, illus. Merheb.* 6 – 10 year olds. Description says “The superhero of this book, Nathan, explains about his Autism Spectrum Superpowers… Each “superpower” includes a Helpful Hints for Friends section that gives ideas on how to help a child with autism in different situations. Nathan’s superpowers include his Supersonic Hearing, a Super Sniffer, Regular Routine Retention, Actual Factual Literal Powers, and many more. This book also contains a Reaction Regulator scale to help your child regulate emotions and a place where they can list their own Energy Drainers and Energy Builders.” Originally written by a mother for her son. A few reviewers voice concerns about “big words” and think the book would not appeal to kids. But, I know several autistic kids that like big words and would find this book engaging as it describes their experience of the world.
Noah Chases the Wind by Worthington, illus Cowman. Ages 3 – 7. Noah is a child with sensory integration disorder (and maybe autism?). The book description says “He sees, hears, feels, and thinks in ways that other people don’t always understand, and he asks a lot of questions… His books usually provide him with the answers he needs, until one day, there’s one question they don’t answer—and that is where Noah’s windy adventure begins.” The wind picks him up and flies him high above the clouds. It’s a lyrical fantasy story, featuring a neuro-diverse main character, though it doesn’t directly address autism as the other books on this list do. Kirkus review says “An invitation to wonder, imagine and look at everything (humans included) in a new way. ”
Since We’re Friends: An Autism Picture Book by Shally, illus Harrington. 4 to 8 years. “Sometimes Matt doesn’t understand what the coach is saying. It’s hard for him to listen when the gym is really loud. Since we’re friends I show Matt what to do… when the pool is suddenly closed for repairs, Matt is furious. He doesn’t like it when our plans suddenly change… Since we’re friends, I think of a new plan…” I really like that it shows how Matt’s friend does simple things to accommodate Matt without trying to change him or make him act not autistic. This is a good book for neurotypical peers – one parent voices concern that it might not be best for autistic kids because they may not all be lucky to have friends who are willing to accommodate.
Sometimes Noise is Big: Life with Autism by Coelho, illus Robinson.* Ages 5 – 10. Sample text: “Sometimes noise is really big, even when it is small for everyone else. Sometimes I am so excited that I need to scream and run in circles to let it out.” Book description: “Flipping the perspective for neurotypicals, this book explains in simple terms some of the sensory issues experienced by children with autism. It shows situations which can be overwhelming and the ways that somebody with autism might react when there is too much going on.” Helpful to parents, caregivers and peers for explaining the perspective of an autistic person.
The Superhero Brain: Explaining autism to empower kids by Land.* Ages 4 – 8. The description says “This story speaks to children who have autism, and explains to them what it means in a way that leaves them feeling empowered and able to make their dreams come true. The story refers to sensory issues as “special powers” and explains how living with autism can be awesome and at the same time also feel tricky sometimes.” Reviewer Lena says “While every child with autism is different, the book touches on some common challenges around sensitive hearing, taste, smell… in an acknowledging and empowering way. It inspires to go look for your own abilities and what you are good at. At the same time it acknowledges that it will not always be easy, and you need love and support.” Short and simple text. There are multiple editions – “girl, dark skin”, “boy, light skin”, etc.
Tacos Anyone? An Autism Story by Ellis. Age 4 – 7. Bilingual English/Spanish book. About a brother who doesn’t understand his non-verbal sibling and can’t figure out how to play with him. A therapist explains that the brother is autistic and how to relate to him.
Understanding Sam and Asperger Syndrome by van Niekerk illus Venter. Ages 4 – 8. Tells about Sam, who doesn’t like loud noises, likes certain foods served certain ways, likes to play the same thing over and over on his cello, and has big meltdowns. After a trip to the fair, he sneaks out alone at night to go back to the ferris wheel. The family takes him to the doctor and he is diagnosed with Asperger’s. The doctor talks about how kids may have different strengths and challenges, and that working together as a team to understand Sam will make it easier for Sam and everyone else. Book ends with ten tips for kids on how to be a good friend to someone with Asperger’s. From the School Library Journal review: “Because of the interesting story line, the positive approach, and the notion that others can learn to help Sam instead of expecting him to change, this is an excellent introduction to the topic.”
Uniquely Wired: A Story About Autism and Its Gifts by Cook, illus DuFalla. Age 6 – 10. Told from the perspective of Zak, “I have autism. Some people say I have a disability. I don’t see it that way… I am uniquely wired… I have an incredible brain and I have a lot of gifts to share.” He talks about his passion for watches – “you might get tired of listening to me tell you about watches but I will never get tired of talking about them.” He explains how/why he doesn’t like scratchy tags, hugs, or eye contact. “I’m not being rude when I look away. I’m just trying to protect myself… [when] too much information goes into my head at once it makes me feel uncomfortable.” “Sometimes I flap my arms… it helps me calm down my brain and organize what I am thinking.” I honestly LOVE all the sections of the book where Zak is talking about himself, why he likes what he likes, and why the things that bother him bother him. They’re great! What I don’t love so much: the pages where other people are holding gift boxes showing all the gifts they get from interacting with Zak. For example, his sister is angry that Zak can take his watches to bed but she can’t take her toys to bed – “because of Zak, I have learned that fair doesn’t always mean equal and that’s okay. Thank you Zak for sharing your gifts with me!” They’re just cheesy and distracting. As Amazon reviewer TobysMommy says “having other characters saying thank you for sharing your gift and making me learn that… is really weird. Most of them don’t sound like gifts and kids won’t be fooled. Presenting other things as gifts would have been better, like being on time for things, being organized, calming oneself down, being gentle with younger children/animals, having an eye for detail, etc. And of course my autistic son still isn’t grasping the gifts metaphor at all. He thinks the boy is literally giving the people gifts in those boxes – sigh…”
We’re Amazing 1,2,3! A Story About Friendship and Autism (Sesame Street) by Kimmelman, illus Nelson. Ages 3 – 6. Book description says: “Elmo introduces his longtime friend Julia to Abby… Elmo explains that Julia has autism, so she does things a little differently. Julia sometimes avoids direct eye contact, flaps her arms when she’s excited, and is sensitive to some noises. But Abby soon learns that she also has a lot of things in common with Julia. All kids want love, friendship, and to have fun!” Reviews are all positive, with just this note: Reviewer Logan Nicholas says “…this story is never told from Julia’s POV. Only Elmo’s. Sure, most kids who read this book might not be autistic, but what about the ones who are? Wouldn’t it be better to write a story about autism from an autistic character’s point-of-view?”
“Why Is He Doing That?” A Children’s Book Educating Autism Awareness by Cuellar.* Age 4 – 8. Each two page spread talks about things Gerald does that might seem unusual to other kids, then explains why he does them, then ends with “Gerald is different, just like everyone else.” Sample text: “Sometimes Gerald asks the same question too many times! Sometimes the teacher becomes frustrated with all of Gerald’s repeated questions. One girl asked “Why is he doing that?” Gerald has autism. Children with autism need to know what is going to happen next. He needs to hear the answer over and over.” There’s things I really like about this book, based on the sample – like how it explains why things are helpful to Gerald, but it also does talk about how he’s frustrating to others and says “he does odd things” rather than “does things which may seem odd to others.”
What it is to be me, by Wine.* Ages 4 and up. Written by a mother of a child with Asperger’s, written from his perspective of what it means to have Asperger’s.
Why Johnny Doesn’t Flap: NT is OK! by Morton, illus Merry. Ages 5 – 9. Flips the standard approach of all these books around… Reviewer Julia Bascom says “reminds us that “normal” is in the eye of the beholder.” Description from the back of the book: “My friend Johnny is different from me. We have fun together, but sometimes he acts pretty strangely. …he can’t seem to stick to a routine, he stares right into your eyes… Johnny is neurotypical. I like Johnny, and I think being NT is OK.” Sample text “when something exciting happens, Johnny doesn’t respond like you would expect. He doesn’t flap his arms or jump up and down. He just moves the sides of his mouth up and slightly widens his eyes. Maybe be doesn’t know much about how to express emotions, but that’s OK.” Reviewer Steve Koppelman says “A wonderful, hilarious and impeccably written book that works as a children’s book, as parody, and as a terrific autism self-advocacy polemic all in one.”
Note about age guidelines – these are the ages for a neurotypical child. If you are choosing a book for an autistic child who has cognitive delays, adjust accordingly.
*Although I’m lucky enough to have access to an AMAZING public library system, they don’t have all these books, so some books I have not actually read, and can only base my comments here on product information, “look inside” previews and reviews available on Amazon. I have starred the books that I have not personally read in full.
A Is for Autism F Is for Friend: A Kid’s Book for Making Friends with a Child Who Has Autism by Keating-Velasco.* 8 – 12 year olds. Description: “provides an inside look at the life of Chelsea… and explains that although she sees other kids playing and wants to join them, social interaction can be tricky for her.” Amazon reviewer Zosia Zaks says “I think these pages do a good job of explaining how we’d like to be friends but what makes it so hard to do so, and what simple accommodations could make being friends easier.”
How to Be Human: Diary of an Autistic Girl by Frenz. Age 8 – 12. Written and illustrated by an autistic teen who tells about challenges learning to read facial expressions, make friends, juggle social cues, and handle peer pressure.
Different Like Me: My Book of Autism Heroes by Elder, illustrated by Thomas.* 8 – 12 year olds. Told through the voice of an 8 year old autistic character. Describes the lives of people who found it difficult to fit into society, including Albert Einstein, Andy Warhol, Sir Isaac Newton, Dian Fossey, and more. Brief basic biographies (you can always google more info on any of the people described.) Many reviewers report that it was inspiring to have role models in many fields who were successful despite challenges. (Saying that these people had “autism” is speculation, but they are people who display some of the typical characteristics.)
National Autism Resources has a list of children’s books that are primarily about teaching behavioral skills to kids on the spectrum, such as: Calm Down Time, Hands are Not for Hitting, The Conversation Train, When My Worries Get Too Big, and Why Does Izzy Cover Her Ears?
A helpful tool for starting conversations about sexuality and sexual health with your child is an age appropriate book. For young children, age 8 and under, they might enjoy having you read the book to them and discuss it. Older children, especially tweens and teens, may not want to talk to you about the book – just put it on the shelf, let them know it’s there, and that you can answer any questions they have about what they read in there.
Other people’s recommended books can be found here:
I checked out many of the recommended books from these sites, and wrote up summaries of the books. I also created a comparison chart to show what topics they address, and took notes on details about specific wording they use to describe various concepts, so that you can find the one that best aligns with your values and with what you are ready to teach your child.
What Makes a Baby by Silverberg. Age 3 – 4. Covers conception, gestation, and birth in a way that works whether the child was adopted, conceived using reproductive technologies, through surrogacy, or the old fashioned way… And it fits all families regardless of how many people, their orientation, and gender identity.
My Body Belongs to Me from My Head to My Toes by Pro Familia. Age 4 – 6. A girl talks about the touch she likes – sitting with friends, hug from Dad, sitting on Grandma’s lap. Then about how she sometimes doesn’t like to be touched. Or touched in certain ways: tickled too much, sloppy kisses. So she says “Stop. Don’t Touch Me. I don’t want you to.” It says if someone doesn’t stop, then tell a trusted person. Ends with “your body belongs only to you.” (More books about consent.)
Bodies are Cool by Tyler Feder. (Video preview.) Not a sexuality book (it does show some people in their underwear and two naked babies), but a body positivity book for preschoolers. It begins with “big bodies, small bodies, dancing, playing, happy bodies. Look at all these different bodies!” Images shown throughout the book include: wide range of sizes, shapes and ages of bodies, range in skin colors and markings (freckles, birthmarks, vitiligo), limb differences and disabilities, and gender. Extremely inclusive.
Tell Me About Sex Grandma by Higginbotham. Begins “Sex is everywhere. It is also hidden. Knowing where to look when you want to find answers is key.” Then models having a conversation with a trusted adult. Addresses masturbation (“I have a sex thing I like to do… moving so it feels good. Is that OK?” “Yes, it’s OK, and best to do only in private.”), about how sex is for adults (“why don’t adults want kids to know about sex?” “Our job is to protect you.” “From sex?” “From growing up too fast. And from people who don’t follow the rules.”), and about consent (“no one else is allowed to boss you into sex… same goes for everyone. You choose for you. They choose for them.”)
Let’s Talk about Body Boundaries, Consent and Respect by Sanders and Jennings. (Video) Starts with the idea of body boundaries – draw an imaginary bubble around yourself – no one should come inside that boundary without asking. If someone wants to hug someone, they should ask. The person might say yes – it’s OK to hug because both people are happy about it. The person might say no – respect that. If they say they’re not sure or don’t answer, that’s not a yes, so don’t hug. It’s OK to say no to others – it’s your body and what you say goes. If someone doesn’t respect that, tell a trusted adult. It’s long – spread it over multiple readings. (More books about consent.)
The Care and Keeping of You (American Girl Library) by Schaefer. Ages 8+. (Note: there is a second book in this series for ages 10+ that covers more advanced topics.) Covers understanding their bodies and taking care of their bodies, so puberty, but also hygiene, nutrition, fitness.
.Amazing You: Getting Smart about Your Private Parts by Saltz.
Body Parts: Hands, arms… the parts you can see. Vagina, labia, urethra, uterus, ovary. Penis, scrotum, testicles. Illustrations of internal anatomy, and external in both children and adults. Puberty.
Privacy and Masturbation: Private parts hide under clothes or underwear. “It’s natural to be curious and private parts and want to touch them. This is something you should do only in private place, like your room.”
Conception: “When a man and a woman love each other… a man’s sperm joins with a woman’s egg.”
Pregnancy & Birth: “The baby grows inside the mother’s uterus…. Uterus starts to squeeze…. The baby will come out of the mother’s vagina
Gender: “If you are a girl, you have [these parts]… if you are a boy, your penis and testicles will grow as you body gets bigger…”
Two page parent guide at the end about how to talk to children about sex.
It’s Not the Stork: A Book about Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families, and Friends by Harris.
Body Parts: Vagina, penis. Where pee comes out – penis, small opening between girls’ legs. Illustrations label thumb, ankle and so on, plus anus, buttocks, vulva, nipple, scrotum, circumcised penis, uncircumcised penis, clitoris. “X-ray” illustrations show bladder, urethra, vas deferens, testicles, ovaries, Fallopian tubes. Talks about puberty. Eggs, sperm.
Privacy & Masturbation: “The parts of our bodies that are under our underpants or bathing suits are called ‘privates.’ If you touch or rub the private parts of your own body because it tickles, or feels good, that’s an ‘okay touch.’”
Safe / Unsafe Touch: “Everyday hugs and kisses and touch and holding hands with our families and good friends are ‘okay touches.’ … during a checkup, the reason your doctor has to look at or touch ‘your privates’ is to make sure every part of your body is healthy… If a person touches ‘your privates’ or any other part of your body that you do not want them to, these are all ‘not okay touches.’… tell that person “Stop!”… If any kind of ‘not okay’ touch happens to you, tell a grownup right away.”
Conception: “A sperm from a man’s body and an egg from a woman’s body must come together. When grown-ups want to make a baby, most often a woman and a man have a special kind of loving called ‘making love’ or ‘having sex.’ [Illustration shows man and woman embraced under blankets.] Sperm swim from penis into vagina. [Addresses assisted reproduction.]
Pregnancy & Birth: Fetal development in detail. Muscles push the baby out through the mommy’s vagina, which stretches… Or doctor makes a cut into the uterus. Covers different kinds of families.
Gender: Boys and girls alike in many ways, difference is body parts.
What Makes a Baby by SIlverberg
Body Parts: Vagina, uterus, eggs. Sperm. Some bodies have them, some do not. Parts not illustrated, except uterus. ”
Conception: Egg, sperm, uterus – not all bodies have them. “When grown ups want to make a baby they need to get an egg from one body and sperm from another body. They also need a place where the baby can grow.” “Who helped bring together the sperm and the egg that made you?” (This neutral description allows families to then add in any details they choose about what their process was.)
Pregnancy & Birth: After fertilization, “sometimes this tiny thing does not grow. And sometimes it grows into a baby.” (Allows parents to discuss history of miscarriage.) “…This usually takes about 40 weeks… Some babies are born by coming out through a part of the body that most people call the vagina. And other times, doctors will make a special opening….”
Gender: Completely gender free. “Just like eggs and just like sperm, some bodies have a uterus, and some do not.”
What’s In There: All About You Before You Were Born by Harris
Body Parts: Uterus. Penis. Vagina.
Conception: Babies begin as one tiny cell; half comes from a woman’s body, half comes from a man’s.
Pregnancy & Birth: Babies grow in a woman’s uterus (just below her tummy). Fetal development – how baby grows, where baby gets nutrients, baby can hear. Mommy’s muscles squeeze and push – baby comes out through a stretchy opening between its mommy’s legs, called the vagina. (Or doctor makes a special cut in the uterus.) “All babies are born into or adopted into their family.”
Gender: Pictures show a pregnant woman and a man, kids say “Daddy’s on the phone! Our new baby’s been born.” Baby grows a penis for a boy or a vagina for a girl.
What’s the Big Secret by Brown
Body Parts: Face, chest, navel… nipple, penis, scrotum, testicles, vulva, clitoris, vagina. Includes illustrations.
Privacy & Masturbation: “You may be curious about…. the parts usually covered up by clothes. Just remember everyone’s privacy needs to be respected…. Touching and rubbing your genitals to feel good is called masturbation. Some of us try this and some of us don’t. However, it’s best to do this private kind of touching off by yourself.”
Safe / Unsafe Touch: “Whether it’s hugging your parents, wrestling with a friend, or shaking your teacher’s hand, touching brings you closer to someone… If someone doesn’t want to be touched, then respect his or her wishes… If you want a hug you can say so. But no one has the right to touch you in a way that feels wrong or uncomfortable… tell a grown-up.”
Conception: “Inside a woman’s body are tiny eggs… a man has even tinier sperm. When a sperm combines with an egg, this now-fertilized egg is the beginning of a new baby. Usually the sperm and egg meet during sexual intercourse, when a man and woman fit his penis inside her vagina. It feels wonderful to share this special closeness when you love someone.”
Pregnancy & Birth: Illustrations of baby, umbilical cord, placenta in uterus. Talks some about fetal development. “When a baby is ready to be born, muscles in the mother’s womb start to tighten and relax… in most births, the baby comes out the vagina…”
Gender: “Boys and girls wear different clothes. Sometimes but not always… all sorts of toys, games, and activities appeal to both boys and girls…. The only sure way to tell boys and girls apart is by their bodies. If you’re a boy, you have….”
Where Did I Come From? by Mayle
Body Parts: Illustration of adult man and adult woman, nude. Woman has two round bumps – some call them bosom, titties, or boobs, the proper name is breasts…. The milk that kept you alive for those first few months either came from a bottle or your mother’s breasts. Hips. Penis, vagina
Conception: “Babies are made by grown-ups. One of them has to be a woman, and one a man. The two people who made you were your mother and your father… are lying in bed together… the man loves the woman… they kiss… the man’s penis becomes stiff and hard… the man wants to get as close to the woman as he can, because he’s feeling very loving to her… he lies on top of her and puts his penis inside her, into her vagina. Making love is a very nice feeling for both the man and the woman… it’s a gentle tingly sort of tickle… the parts that tickle most are the man’s penis and the woman’s vagina… the man pushes his penis up and down… something really wonderful happens which puts an end to the tickly feeling and at the same time starts the making of the baby.” Sperm, eggs, etc.
Pregnancy & Birth: baby grows in the womb… fetal development… a special kind of stomachache (called labor pains) get closer together… mother pushes the baby out through the opening between her legs.
Gender: Stereotypical. Talks about men and women, so doesn’t address some of the things that others touch on about how boys and girls might have similar interests and only body parts are different.
Who Has What: All About Girls’ Bodies and Boys’ Bodies by Harris
Body Parts: Head, ear, elbow, belly button… “Between their legs, girls and women have three openings… where pee comes out, an opening to the vagina, and an opening where the poop comes out. Boys… do not have an opening to the vagina.” Penis, scrotum. Shows illustrations of external genitals and internal organs on humans and on dogs. Ovary, uterus, testicles. Touches on breasts and breastfeeding.
Privacy: Shows that there are clothed people on the beach, and when it shows genitals, they’re shown on children who are in a changing room getting dressed. Text does not touch on privacy.
Pregnancy & Birth: “The uterus is where a baby can grow until it is born.”
Gender: “That baby is either a girl baby or a boy baby.” Most things are the same… (interests, activities, most body parts)… but some parts are different… what makes you a boy or a girl… will make you a man or a woman.”
A note about gender. In the chart above, I call something stereotypical if it only talks about men and women in a heterosexual, cisgender context. I say biology if it’s generally fairly diverse (in talking about how boys and girls can do all the same things, or talking about alternate family structures at all) but it still categorically says: what makes a boy a boy is a penis and what makes a girl a girl is a vagina. As modern culture is shifting toward thinking of gender beyond the binary, some of these books may change wording in future editions, but in the meantime, some parents may choose to supplement these books with Who Are You?: The Kid’s Guide to Gender Identity or one of the other books I mention in my post on Talking to Children about Gender Identity.
I include Amazon affiliate links for these books – if you click on those and then purchase something, I do get a small referral fee. You can preview some of these books by going to YouTube and searching for “[book title] read-aloud.” Copies may be available at your local library (here’s info about King County libraries) but it may be best to purchase a copy of a book to have on your child’s shelf where they can access it when they’re ready.
Today I stumbled across a series of books called “Just for You!” They are 24 early readers for kindergarten to second grade, all written and illustrated by African-American authors and artists and featuring African-American children, often in urban settings.
I have only read one, which I really liked. (Lights Out by Medearis and Tadgell) Great illustrations, nice rhyme and rhythm to the text, a loving daddy, and a mischievous girl who sneaks out of bed to look at the city lights and make shadow puppets on the wall. So many children’s books feature Caucasian kids in pastoral settings, and the chance for an urban African-American child to see themselves represented in a sweet bedtime book is rare and, I’m sure, appreciated.
The book also includes a note to parents at the beginning about ways to read to your child: take a “picture walk” through the book, point out words as you read, and ask questions. At the end, there are suggested activities related to the story: making up a bedtime rhyme, looking out your own window and describing what you see and hear, making your own shadow hand puppets, and other things to talk about.
The Amazon reviews of other books in the series say they’re a little hit and miss in quality, so you may want to pick and choose from the best of them.
Here’s the full listing of all the books in the series. You can look up details and reviews on Amazon, and get them from your favorite online bookseller or your local library.