Tag Archives: diversity

Children’s Books as Windows and Mirrors

Child looking at a mirror with windows showing diverse children

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

In this post, I discuss:

Windows and Mirrors

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

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

The Power of Mirrors

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

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

What If the Mirrors Are Missing

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

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

The Power of Windows

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

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

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

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

What if the Windows Are Missing

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Counts as Diversity

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

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

Lack of Diversity in Kids’ Books

Gender Representation

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

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

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

Race

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

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

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

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

Disability

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

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

LGBT

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

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

Who Wrote It

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

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

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

What to Look For in Books about Diversity

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

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

Some more things to consider:

How is Identity Relevant to the Story

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

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

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

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

What Role does the Diverse Character Play

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

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

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

Relatable Characters / Situations

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

Getting Kids to Read Diverse Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talk it Over

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

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

Resources for Learning More

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

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

Multi-Category

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

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

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

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

Recommended Multicultural Books

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

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

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

African and African-American

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

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

Native American

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

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

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

Asian and Asian-American

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

Muslim

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

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

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

Refugees and Immigrants

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

Welcome Immigrants! – and New Picture Books about Immigrants.

Gender

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

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

LGBT

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

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

Diverse Family Structures

Several of the LGBT books above, plus…

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

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

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

Disability

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

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

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

Poverty

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

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Teaching about Differences and Appreciation of Diversity

Young children love to sort things by color, or by shape, or by type (e.g. car or train?). They make sense of their world by seeing how things fit into categories. And in most cases, we encourage them to think about classifications – especially when it helps them to remember to put the Legos in the Lego bin, the books on the bookshelf, and the dirty socks in the laundry basket!

But, when they try to sort out categories of people: race, gender, ability, age, and more, we tend to get all flustered. We worry about saying the wrong thing, causing offense, creating prejudice, etc.

For example, consider our approach to racial differences. Children are very aware of different skin tones, even as young as 6 months. But when kids ask about it, how do parents respond? Most non-white parents talk openly and frequently about race. But research finds that 75% of white parents almost never talk about race – they just change the subject. Or if well-meaning white parents do talk about race, they try the “color-blind” approach and say “we’re all the same.” This mystifies a young child who can clearly see we are NOT all the same.

If parents avoid a subject, or become awkward around it, kids get the message that the topic is “taboo.”

How might our kids’ perception be changed if we instead acknowledge and celebrate differences?

Talk about Differences. When reading books, watching movies, or people watching, talk about differences easily and openly. Note different skin colors, ages, gender expressions, weight, ability, clothing / hairstyles, languages spoken, family compositions, and more. Teach descriptive words / labels they can use, like Asian, gay, disabled, multi-racial – you can say this just as easily as you can say “look, there’s a girl and a boy in that picture”.

As they get older, we’ll help them learn that no one can be defined by any one label. But, as they start to sort things out, talking about differences builds vocabulary and context for understanding the broader world.

Be careful not to add in biased judgments or stereotypes when talking about differences: “She’s only got a mama, no daddy. That must be hard for her.” “He’s Asian, I bet he does well in school.” “She likes football? That’s a boy’s sport.”

Talk about Commonalities. Don’t talk only about commonalities – “they’re just like us!” But, once you’ve acknowledged a difference your child has noticed, you can also talk about universal needs and common interests. “You’re right, her skin is a different color than yours. Her ancestors came from a different part of the world than ours did. The two of you played soccer together for a long time – it seems like she likes it as much as you do.” “Yes, you have just me as your parent, and most of your classmates have two parents – sometimes a mom and a dad, sometimes two moms or two dads. But all of you get lots of love and snuggles, right?” “They wear those special clothes as part of their religion. We don’t wear special clothes, but we do celebrate special holidays because of our religious beliefs.”

Answer Questions about Differences. I have a visible handicap, and it’s pretty common for me to overhear a child saying “mama, how come that lady only has one leg?” Some parents ignore the question, change the subject, “shush” the child or drag the child away from me. These reactions tell the child that my being an amputee is something that is “not OK” to talk about. It implies that disability is something shameful or embarrassing.

Instead, when your child asks questions about differences, try these approaches:

  • Acknowledge the difference – “you’re right, and that’s different than what you’re used to.”
  • After acknowledging it, it’s better to address it right now, but you could say “we’ll talk about it later.” (If you say this, then be sure to talk about it later!)
  • Give a simple answer to the question, it you know it: “Those are called crutches. They help her to walk.” Or, if you don’t know, you might say “I don’t know why she has one leg… some people are born without one and sometimes they lose a leg in an accident.”
  • Try to figure out how your child is feeling. If they’re simply curious and wanting to learn something, then just answer the question they asked. If you sense there’s any fear or discomfort for them, make some guesses about what their real underlying question is and address that.

Actively expose your child to other perspectives: Eat at ethnic restaurants, attend cultural festivals, visit museums which focus on other cultures, read books and see movies from many countries, learn bits of other languages. Seek out multi-generational communities – make friends with people of all ages. Connect with queer families. Attend public events hosted by faith communities. Choose to live in a diverse neighborhood and/or attend a diverse school.

Choose children’s books which teach about diversity. Here’s an article on how to evaluate books (and other media): http://www.teachingforchange.org/selecting-anti-bias-books and I have a long post about Children’s Books as Windows and Mirrors, which includes at the bottom links to lots of great books about a wide variety of differences.

Talking about Inequity. In the early years (around preschool), we just focus on building an awareness of, understanding of,  and appreciation for a wide variety of differences.

As they get older (around early elementary school), then we add in that even though people may be different, we all have the same rights and deserve the same fair treatment.

As they get even older (by age 8 to 10), we can refine that into “we should all have the same rights and opportunities, but we don’t. What can we do together to help increase everyone’s access to the same opportunities?”

And with teens, we can add in discussion of systemic oppressions – classism, ableism, homophobia, and so on. If you think you can skip these discussions, you likely are coming from a place of privilege. As a white parent, I can choose whether or not to talk about this. If my kids had brown skin, it wouldn’t be an option to not talk about it. Check out this article on how white parents talking about racism can help their kids support friends of color: www.scarymommy.com/black-child-friends/

In an increasingly diverse society, the more we try to pretend racism and sexism and such are things of the past, the more we allow them to persist. Having open and honest conversations about diversity will help us work together toward a more equitable society for all.

Learn more:

If you found this post helpful, you might like to check out my full series on Better You Than YouTube – Having the Hard Conversations with Your Kids which includes posts on how to talk about sex, gender, tricky people, death, natural disasters and other scary topics (for them or for  you.)