10 Books That Bring Diversity to Children’s Libraries

‘Kid lit’ is notoriously whitewashed—this list of titles adds some color.

'Laughing Tomatoes and Other Spring Poems.' (Photo: Courtesy Amazon.com)

Sep 15, 2015· 5 MIN READ
Rebecca Raber is a regular contributor to TakePart. She has written for Pitchfork, MTV Hive, The Village Voice, Spin, CMJ, and other publications.

The importance of reading to kids from infancy cannot be overstated, but what if you don’t see yourself reflected in the children’s literature that’s available? Will you be as likely to read to your child if the kids in the books overwhelmingly look different from you or don’t reflect your family’s background?

Much ink has been spilled recently on the abysmal lack of diversity among authors of “kid lit” and its characters. Though people of color make up more than 37 percent of the U.S. population, they represent only a fraction of children’s book protagonists and writers. According to the Children's Cooperative Book Center at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, which has been gathering statistics on diversity in children’s literature since 1985, of the 3,600 books published in 2014, only 180 were about African Americans, 66 had Latino characters, 38 included Native Americans, and 112 featured characters of Asian or Pacific Island descent. That’s startling when you realize that almost half of all kids under five are nonwhite.

At the same time, according to research gathered by Reach Out and Read, a nonprofit composed of pediatric medical providers who promote early literacy and school readiness, reading aloud has been found to be the most important activity in language development; it builds motivation, curiosity, and memory and creates a strong foundation for scholastic success. Some research has even shown that a home’s literacy environment can be a stronger predictor of academic achievement than the family’s income.

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This matters, because books, especially those for young readers and even babies, help shape our early worldview, either expanding or calcifying our values, ideals, and biases. Not only do children of color need to see themselves reflected in the heroes and heroines of the books they read, but white kids also need to see this diversity.

Research has also shown that “race-based social preferences begin to emerge during the preschool years,” when students are learning to interact with the world through books. As a recent Pacific Standard article argued, white people’s implicit (i.e., unconscious) biases and racial anxieties can be reduced by familiarity to those from different backgrounds, either by getting to know them in person or via cultural products, such as film and books.

With that in mind, here are a few suggestions of titles that add diverse perspectives to libraries for kids.

'The Snowy Day.' (Photo: Courtesy Amazon.com)

1. The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats

This classic, which won the 1963 Caldecott Medal for Keats’ illustrations, captures the wonder of a child’s first snowfall. That child is African American—an important distinction when so many books with black protagonists are specifically about their blackness.

'Little Kunoichi: The Ninja Girl.' (Photo: Courtesy Amazon.com)

2. Little Kunoichi, The Ninja Girl, by Sanae Ishida

This book, which came out this spring, is full of folksy, watercolor-like illustrations and tells a whimsical story about the studies of a Japanese girl ninja—all while teaching readers about the importance of friendship, hard work, and cooperation.

'More More More Said The Baby.' (Photo: Courtesy Amazon.com)

3. More More More Said the Baby, by Vera B. Williams

This is a collection of three stories about babies—Little Guy, Little Pumpkin, and Little Bird—and their loving adults (a dad, a grandmother, and a mother). It’s noteworthy not only for its multiethnic and multigenerational cast of characters but also for including, without comment, interracial families, a subtle example for little ones that families don’t always look the same.

'Please, Baby, Please.' (Photo: Courtesy Amazon.com)

4. Please, Baby, Please, by Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee

Filmmaker Lee and his producer wife turn his She’s Gotta Have It catchphrase into a clever, rhyming tale of a day in the life of an energetic little girl. That adorable baby is African American, but the story (complete with an early-morning wake-up, a tantrum at the playground, and a chaotic bath) will be familiar to all.

'Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes/Diez deditos de las manos y Diez deditos de los pies.' (Photo: Courtesy Amazon.com)

5. Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes/Diez deditos de las manos y Diez deditos de los pies, by Mem Fox

This sweet book features a diverse cast of babies of many colors and nationalities but highlights their similarities. Each rhyming section compares two tots—say, one born in a tent in the desert and one born up north on the ice—but ends with the repeated titular refrain that shows what they have in common. Look for the bilingual board-book version.

'Peeny Butter Fudge.' (Photo: Courtesy Amazon.com)

6. Peeny Butter Fudge, by Toni Morrison and Slade Morrison

You’ll want to familiarize your children with the beautiful prose of Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison as soon as possible, but Beloved isn’t exactly G-rated. This warmly told and illustrated book about Nana babysitting her grandkids while Mom is away is the perfect introduction to a writer with whom they’ll enjoy a lifelong relationship.

'Laughing Tomatoes and Other Spring Poems.' (Photo: Courtesy Amazon.com)

7. Laughing Tomatoes and Other Spring Poems, by Francisco Alarcón

It’s no coincidence that so many children’s books are told in verse; it helps little ones learn language. So this collection of non-rhyming poems told in English and Spanish, with bold folk-art illustrations by Maya Christina Gonzalez—and featuring a cast of smiling Latino kids, an abuela, and juicy produce—should delight.

'Jalapeño Bagels.' (Photo: Courtesy Amazon.com)

8. Jalapeño Bagels, by Natasha Wing

Pablo can’t decide what to bring from his parents’ bakery for his school’s International Day: one of his Mexican mother’s recipes or one of his Jewish father’s breads? The jalapeño bagels, which combine their traditions, are the answer. The book includes both Yiddish and Spanish words, but don’t worry if you don’t speak either; there’s a glossary in the back.

'El Deafo.' (Photo: Courtesy Amazon.com)

9. El Deafo, by Cece Bell

The dominant culture of children’s books (and most entertainment) isn’t just white; it’s also able-bodied and “typical,” which is why this Newbery Honor winner for slightly older kids is so special. El Deafo is a full-color graphic novel that is also a funny, touching autobiography: Bell lost her hearing from spinal meningitis at a young age and had to wear a hearing aid.

'Dim Sum for Everyone.' (Photo: Courtesy Amazon.com)

10. Dim Sum for Everyone, by Grace Lin

One surefire way to explore a new culture is through the stomach, so this book about a Chinese family’s restaurant visit will pique the interest and appetite of all kinds of readers. Are you a dim sum newbie? An epilogue explains its history and illustrates some of its most popular traditional dishes (pork buns, egg custard) next to their names in English and Cantonese.