Diversity in Kids’ Books: Why It Matters, and Where to Start

By Aaron Keck, afternoon/evening on-air host at WCHL and author at Chapelboro.com

America is a diverse nation; more than that, it’s a nation founded on an ideal of diversity. The Declaration of Independence insists that “all men are created equal.” Father-of-the-Constitution James Madison argued that a large and diverse population was the most effective check on tyranny. We call ourselves a “melting pot,” a “nation of immigrants.” The Statue of Liberty faces out to sea, welcoming “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Our national motto is E pluribus unum – “one out of many.” Our patriotic songs even celebrate the diversity of the land – “from the mountains, to the prairies, to the oceans white with foam.”

But between the events in Charlottesville and the slow response to Puerto Rico, from DACA to travel bans to refugees to Confederate statues to the NFL, the daily news is telling us, over and over again, that Americans are struggling to recognize, respect, and celebrate our own diversity. This is a problem that’s always been present – but it’s not getting better, and it’s not going away.

How can we help?

One way is to start early – by making sure our kids are exposed to books that feature minority characters.

Education experts say that kids begin developing their worldview at a very young age, and it comes from a variety of sources – not just their family and friends and neighbors, but also the movies they see, the TV shows they watch, and the books they read. And children’s literature, sadly, doesn’t always reflect the diversity of the world in which young readers actually live.

In fact there’s a very big difference.

“In 2015, over half of the children (in America) under the age of five were racial or ethnic minorities,” says Janet Peterson, school librarian at Chapel Hill’s FPG Bilingue Elementary School. “But of children’s books published that same year, only 14.2 percent depicted characters who were racial or ethnic minorities…

“And unfortunately that sends a very loud and clear message about who we value in our society.”

Smith Middle School librarian Gabriel Graña agrees. “As librarians,” he says, “we make sure that we give kids windows into other lives – and mirrors for them to reflect on their own.” If kids don’t get to experience stories about the lives of people different from themselves, he says, it may be harder for them to learn to empathize with others in the future – or to see others as worth caring about.

That’s why Ginger Young, the executive director of the Durham-based nonprofit Book Harvest, wrote a letter to her supporters in the aftermath of Charlottesville, urging them to support diversity in children’s literature.

“At Book Harvest, I witness firsthand every day the power of a good story to transform a child’s life,” she wrote. “And I know that the stories we read to our children become their stories – touchstones that help children shape their identity and their sense of their place in a complicated world.

“The painful events of recent weeks, from Charlottesville to our own community of Durham and many other points across the country, remind me too that as we struggle to discover a way to live together in peace, stories offer us a path forward – and that we need to choose our stories with care.

“That’s why, in these unsettling times, we encourage you to select books for and with your children which help them learn from our difficult past and envision a brighter future — a future that is grounded in brotherhood and love.”

With that sentiment in mind, Young and Book Harvest created a wish list on Amazon, full of books with diverse central characters.

View the list here. (You can also purchase the books from Amazon to donate to Book Harvest.)

WCHL’s Aaron Keck hosted Ginger Young on the air, along with Gabriel Graña and Janet Peterson, and asked them to offer their own top picks.

Here’s what they recommended.

GABRIEL GRAÑA
The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas
Flying Lessons and Other Stories, edited by Ellen Oh
The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora, by Pablo Cartaya
When the Moon Was Ours, by Anna-Marie McLemore
Refugee, by Alan Gratz

JANET PETERSON
One Family, written by George Shannon and illustrated by Blanca Gomez
El Deafo by Cece Bell
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
Inside Out and Back Again by Thanha Lai
Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan

GINGER YOUNG
We March by Shane W. Evans
Separate is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

Young says it’s extremely important – especially now – to introduce our kids to minority voices, and to support those voices in children’s literature. “We citizens have buying power, we have the ability to speak with our pocketbooks and with our requests at libraries,” she says. “We need to be working hard to show our commitment to this field of literature, which is marvelous…

“Let’s not accept the status quo. The status quo needs a lot of pushing back on right now, (and) this is an easy, enriching way to do it.”

And Graña says librarians can be helpful allies in that endeavor. “Support libraries, support public libraries, support local libraries, support school libraries, (and) support your local booksellers,” he says. “And talk to your librarian about diversity. They’re going to be over the moon that you’re asking this very specific question about books to enrich your life and the lives of your children.”

The Chapel Hill Public Library has also created numerous lists of children’s book recommendations, many of which focus on books with minority characters.

See the CHPL’s page of kids’ book recommendations.

Young, Graña, and Peterson also suggested numerous other resources for parents and educators who want more information about diversity in children’s literature. Those resources include:

We Need Diverse Books
Disability in Kidlit
Latinxs in Kid Lit
Lee & Low Books, a publisher that specializes in multicultural kids’ books