As parents and caregivers, we want our children to grow up feeling like they belong somewhere; to be part of a community that embraces their individuality and specialness, and that brings them together to celebrate their shared values and experiences.
We also want them to grow up with open hearts and minds, able to hear and respect viewpoints different than their own, and to have empathy and kindness for everyone.
As a mother of four now nearly all grown up children, and a publisher for the last 25 years of stories from all over the world, I am a passionate believer in the importance of diverse books in children’s lives. Books that depict diverse themes and characters offer parents, caregivers and educators an accessible way to discuss complex issues with the children in their lives — topics such as racial and gender inequality, and differences in cultures, religions, families and abilities. Today, these discussions are happening all around our children — with our families, in friend’s homes, in their schools, even on their playgrounds — and they are needed now more than ever.
Sadly, finding books that represent diversity, and that celebrate characters from all walks of life, can be a bit of a challenge. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC)’s latest research shows that of the 3,200 children’s books published in the United States in 2016, only 681, or 21%, featured ethnic minority main characters. This is a problem given that over 50% of children under the age 5 in the US were ethnic minorities as of 2014. And these sobering statistics don’t account for children of varying abilities, religions, cultures, and family types.
So as parents and caregivers, we need to be intentional about sharing books that represent diversity in all its many forms, especially if our children’s schools don’t have diverse books on their summer reading lists. Here are some things you can do this summer to make sure that your kids are getting a diverse reading experience.
Talk to your librarians
Your local school and public librarians are a great resource to help you learn what kids are reading and to find specific kinds of books. Ask them to recommend books by a wide range of authors and illustrators that are appropriate for your child’s reading level. Many libraries run free literacy programs over the summer, so ask them if they have events or activities that feature diverse books. Your librarians may also be able to point you to local readings and events that celebrate authors and illustrators from a range of cultures or religions. Borrow as many diverse books as you can carry and encourage your child to read them all.
And if the books in your library don’t represent many different types of characters or themes, take the time to speak to your librarian and suggest that they do. Tell them why this matters to you personally and to your community. Librarians love to hear from their patrons, and by speaking up, you’re helping all the families in your community - and supporting the authors and illustrators of diverse books, too.
Set up a diverse reading schedule as a family
Use online book lists to set up a diverse reading schedule for your children this summer. Check out Marley Dias’ viral list of #1000BlackGirlBooks, or visit the Multicultural Children’s Book Day website, whose mission is to not only raise awareness for children’s books that celebrate diversity, but to also get more of these books into classrooms and libraries. Additionally, the Family Equality Council’s Book Nook recommends titles that positively represent LGBTQ families. Try alternating your book selections weekly between these lists. And always let your children select the books they want to read, giving them ownership and reinforcing books and reading as fun.
Dare to branch out from the classics
It can be tempting as a parent to give your children only books that you remember reading as a child. It’s so easy to reach for a familiar favorite like Dr. Seuss or Goodnight Moon or Where the Wild Things Are again and again. But while we all love these amazing classics, there are many other exceptional books out there that represent a wide range of experiences. To find them, look for book awards lists that honor creators of specific identities and backgrounds and best-of-class publishing. For example, the Coretta Scott King Award honors African-American authors and illustrators, while the Stonewall Award celebrates books with positive LGBTQ representation and the Foreword INDIES Book Awards recognizes the best of independent, innovative publishing. Share these stories with your children, and you’ll not only keep their book diet diverse - you’ll also inspire them with some of the very best children’s literature available.
Model reading diversely to your kids
Our children look up to us; they’re listening to our conversations, soaking in and internalizing our attitudes and beliefs about ourselves and others. If we read books by, and about, only one kind of person or one genre, our children will likely do the same. But if we read books by and about everyone, our children will follow our example.
So make it a priority to model reading diversely for yourself this summer. Talk to your children about the books you read and the authors who write them. If you discover a favorite new author or book, share your excitement with your kids. They will see, and be drawn into, your genuine excitement, and be all the more eager to read a diverse selection of books on their own.
Raising the next generation of leaders
Children need books that validate their hopes and dreams by reflecting their own experiences, and that also inspire them to be curious and empathetic about other children’s experiences. Diverse books help to show them that, while we all have our own special stories, we are actually more alike than different.
Our children are our caretakers of tomorrow. We must foster in them a sense of responsibility to speak up when they hear words that threaten and demean others. We must encourage them to amplify minority voices, search for all the kindness in the world, and live their lives in a way that creates space for even more good. Reading diverse and inclusive books helps to set our children up for lifelong success, empowering them to grow into compassionate, responsible global citizens and, potentially, our future 21st century leaders.
My four children have all grown up immersed in a captivating colorful world of stories and beautiful illustrations that I hope has inspired their imaginations and opened their hearts and minds to see how we are all connected, but still unique.