[Graphic by David Huyck shared via Creative Commons]
By now you have probably heard the expression “representation matters” regarding the importance of children actually seeing people who look like them reflected in movies, TV, games, books and art. You may have even started seeking new material that better reflects the diversity of your community or classroom. The infographic above clearly lets us know that while there are books that feature minority characters, there are still too few available, despite the growth in the children’s book industry. When was the last time you held up a mirror to your own classroom library to see who is actually represented in that literature?
Having been in the classroom for over two decades I have a substantial collection of books that I relish sharing with children, but most of them were published before I’d considered the importance and relevance of diverse characters and voices being represented across my classroom. I’m going to share with you some recommendations to help each of us take a closer look at what we have and what we can aim to improve in our classroom libraries.
Since picture books have the power to both educate those who are unfamiliar with a culture and directly reflect those who are part of that culture, it is vital that the book’s text and illustrations are authentically tied to the culture being portrayed. Authenticity refers to the degree to which the author and illustrator have taken care to employ authentic and accurate:
names, language — even if the book is a mix of English and another language (e.g., In the award-winning Tikki Tikki Tembo the main character’s names are actually nonsense words in any Chinese dialect, and the brother Chang’s name does not mean “little” or “nothing” as is said in the story)
- clothing — appropriate to the setting, situation and time of the story; not all wearing traditional garb in everyday settings
- foods — (e.g., hard shell tacos are not widely eaten in Mexico except near the US border; fortune cookies are an American invention)
- typical activities — depending on whether it is a holiday or everyday setting
- historical references — e.g., The Wampanoag tribe - the actual original settlers of eastern Massachusetts - invited the Pilgrims to join their annual harvest feast; not the other way around)
- Books should reflect the current diversity even among cultural or ethnic groups and not rely on stereotyping imagery (e.g., not all Muslim females wear a hijab, so a book with Muslim characters can illustrate some with and without hijabs).
- Include books that highlight people or groups typically “invisible” in children’s literature (e.g., single parents, homeless, rural life, LGBTQ+ families/characters, biracial families, incarcerated relatives, children with disabilities, etc). The photo illustrated book collection What Makes a Family highlights some of the families less commonly seen in children’s literature.
- Bilingual books offer a bridge between two languages, and an opportunity for all children to learn and practice simple words in non-dominant languages. Consider asking someone fluent in a book’s language to make a recording so that students are hearing the language with authentic inflection and pronunciation. These classic Bilingual Favorites board books provide English/Spanish text. Ask your students’ families or your local public library to loan you books in languages native to them. And use students, parents and online sources to check your own pronunciation of unfamiliar words.
- Everyday living should be the focus for most stories - showing characters doing typical things that most children or families do. Certain groups (e.g. poor, individuals with disabilities) should not be portrayed as dependent, needy, or overcoming tremendous obstacles. It is best to show them working and playing just as their peers do.
- While animal characters are entertaining and can sometimes provide a gentle buffer between the harsh realities of cultural, racial, gender or other biases, they are no substitute for the use of human characters in learning and teaching about these challenging subjects in a realistic way.
Culturally authentic books should also:
- be written by cultural “insiders” - those who belong to the culture represented
- be written in the last decade in order to most accurately portray the culture (pre-2000 books can still rely heavily on stereotypes). For example, as much beloved as the Babar stories are, when viewed in a cultural perspective they reflect the gender and racial stereotypes (Colonialism) of the time in which they were written and do not reflect more modern thinking for most cultures.
- provide an accurate portrayal of the culture as it is today (or balanced with accurate historical portrayals)
- be free of stereotypes (e.g. not all Alaskan natives live in igloos)
- use positive images and language
- reflect a reasonable range of values within the culture or social group of the story (e.g. Jon Muth’s Zen Shorts inappropriately blends multiple “oriental” cultures into one book, showing a giant Panda (national symbol of China) donning a Japanese kimono and telling a Taoist tale which is not Zen. It may seem trivial to those who are not part of those cultures or beliefs, but it is inaccurate and does not reflect them responsibly).
- feature main characters who belong to a minority race, religion, disability group, culture or are part of gender and sex minorities (GSM or LGBTQ+).
- represent minorities of various groups (cultural, ethnic, religious, gender identity, disabilities) even if your class is predominantly homogenous. Your students’ future is predominantly multi-ethnic and diverse. It is healthy to help even the youngest children develop respect and acceptance of people who are not like them in significant ways. Books are a powerful tool to help bridge the gap between what is familiar and what is new to them. Consider the Celebrate Me or the Inclusion Works book sets as great starting points for your growing diverse collection.
- be part of regular reading and curriculum. “Tokenism” refers to only having or presenting one or two books about a child from a particular culture or group. Be sure to vary the stories you share throughout the year (e.g., Read about Black American or Indigenous people or characters throughout the year, not just in February or November).
As the person who selects materials and guides young minds it is important to be keenly selective of the books and other media material you share with your students. Words, especially when combined with imagery, can be powerful tools for teaching and learning, and must be chosen with accuracy, humanity, and thoughtful insight. A good rule of thumb when choosing such materials is if you are unsure, or an item (book, movie, poster, etc.) causes you concern, it is best to shelve it until you can do a little more research and speak with people more in the know on that particular subject. A little insight goes a long way to providing a richly diverse, inclusive education for our children.
- American Indians in Children's Literature
- Lin, Grace. Rethinking Tikki Tikki Tembo.
- Maynard, Jaren. Going Beyond a Diverse Classroom Library. Edutopia.
- Lewis, Meredith. Creating a Diverse Classroom Library
- School Collection of Children’s Literature. Fact or Not: A Few Misrepresentations of Chinese Culture in Children's Books.
- Social Justice Books. https://socialjusticebooks.org/tikki-tikki-tembo/
- Derman-Sparks, Louise. Guide to Selecting Anti-Bias Children’s Books.
- How Teachers are Debunking Myths of Thanksgiving (video) PBS.
- Teacher Tips for Developing Instructional Materials About Native Americans, American Indians in Children’s Literature.
- We Need Diverse Books offers grants and free diverse book sets to qualifying classrooms
Vetted* Booklists and Reviews of Diverse Picture Books:
*Reviewed by people belonging to the specific group or culture featured in the books.
- American Library Association Rainbow Booklist for LGBTQ+ representation
- List of Best Books About American Indians*, 2010-2020. American Indians in Children’s Literature.
- Social Justice Book Reviews*. New and existing children’s books vetted and reviewed for cultural accuracy and content by diverse experts. Sort by title, reading level, rating, theme.
- Social Justice Booklists* recommended children’s books listed by topic, culture, disability, country; includes teacher resource books as well. Social Justice Books.
- We Are Kid Lit Summer Reading List 2020* - suggested books for diversity & inclusion. Social Justice Books.
- American Indian Library Association Youth Literature Award List (AILA)*
- Asian Pacific American Librarians Association (APALA) Literature Awards*
- Black Caucus of the American Library Assn (BCALA) Best of the Best Booklist 2020*
- Chinese American Librarians Association (CALA) Best Book Awards*
- Assn. for Library Service to Children Belpre Award List for Outstanding Latinx Writing*
- LatinX in Kid Lit Book Reviews*
- Islamic Schools League of America* Popular K-12 school library trade books are rated as to how well they reflect Muslim values (i.e., emphasis on family relations and working for the greater good vs individualism). Read the ISLA’s insightful criteria here.
- 10 English Language Books That Reflect Arab & Muslim Experiences*.Scene Arabia.
- Picture Books That Mirror the Diversity of Jewish Communities*. PJ Library.
- PJ Library. List of books featuring Jewish characters searchable by topic, age, Jewish value and/or holiday.
Lisa Heintz, M.Ed., is an educator with over 25 years of experience supporting learners from toddlers to adults, and owner of Little Songbird: Songs for Learning, a site that provides quality children’s music and book recommendations for PreK-grade 3 educators. She stays “green and growing” by volunteering in community and school projects that focus on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, as well as with the Children’s Music Network. She is fascinated by birds of all sorts, loves cats, and is the proud mom of a son who is a shining example of what intentional teaching and parenting can do for children with disabilities. Connect with Lisa at Lisa@LittleSongbird.com.