Promoting Diversity & Equity Through Children’s Literature

happy in skin
Image credit: Happy in Our Skin by Fran Manushkin, illus. Lauren Tobia (Candlewick, 2015).

I co-facilitated a training last Saturday called “Promoting Diversity and Equity Through Children’s Literature.” Representatives from Child Care Resource Network, SMART, and SOESD Early Childhood Services (where I was stationed as an AmeriCorps volunteer 2015-2016) developed this training last June. This was our second time presenting it in Medford, OR. I can’t share everything we talked about, but I’m happy to share my part—which mostly consisted of booktalking some of my favorite diverse reads for the 0-6 audience.

For this presentation, I used Louise Derman-Sparks’s anti-bias education framework that uses seven broad categories for looking at representation in children’s books: (1) culture and language; (2) racial identity; (3) gender identity; (4) economic class; (5) family structures; (6) different abilities; and (7) holidays. Before we really dug into the books, I also showed Grace Lin’s incredible TED Talk to introduce the idea of mirror and windows books. Our audience was mostly (white, female) child care providers. The main takeaway: go back to your school or child care facility and really look at the books you have on the shelf to see who is reflected and who isn’t.

NOTE: If you haven’t already seen the results of CCBC’s annual statistics on the number of children’s books by and about people of color, you should. We talked about these statistics at the training, and shared the infographic on this excellent post from Lee & Low. Participants were so surprised to learn that, despite the fact that more books about people of color & First/Native Nations were published, there weren’t more books by people of color & First/Native Nation creators themselves.

Culture and Language

Isadora, Rachel. Say Hello! (2010)
While walking to meet her Abuelita Rosa, Carmelita greets passersby in their respective languages. (Board book/Picture book)

Park, Linda Sue. Bee-Bim Bop! illus. Ho Baek Lee. (2005)
A family prepares its own recipe of Korean “mix mix rice” in this musical, memorable read-aloud. (Picture book)

Smith, Cynthia Leitich. Jingle Dancer. illus. Cornelius Wright & Ying-Hwa Hu. (2000)
Jenna follows in her Grandma’s footsteps when she dances at the powwow. (Picture book)

Racial Identity

Katz, Karen. The Colors of Us. (1999)
As a young artist prepares to paint her friends and family, she explores the specificity of skin tones from “cocoa brown” to “butterscotch” to “peachy and tan.” (Picture book)

Manushkin, Fran. Happy In Our Skin. illus. Lauren Tobia. (2015)
This delightful, rhyming read-aloud celebrates skin tones and other skin features like cuts and freckles and dimples. The illustrations also show different family structures. (Picture book)

Raschka, Chris. Yo! Yes? (1993)
Though at first apprehensive, a white boy and an African-American boy become fast friends in this hilarious story that’s told entirely in dialogue. (Picture book)

Gender Identity

Hoffman, Mary. Amazing Grace. illus. Caroline Binch. (1991)
Grace, actress extraordinaire, is stunned to learn that her classmates think she can’t play Peter Pan because she doesn’t look like him. She proves them wrong. (Picture book)

Hoffman, Sarah & Ian Hoffman. Jacob’s New Dress. illus. Chris Case. (2014)
Jacob proves that there are many different ways to be a boy—or a girl—and that what you wear has the potential to armor you against the meanies who say otherwise. (Picture book)

Spanyol, Jessica. Clive and His Babies. (2016)
Whether on slides, with Moshi Cat, or his cast of diverse friends, Clive really loves playing with his babies. (Board book)

Economic Class

Boelts, Maribeth. A Bike Like Sergio’s. illus. Noah Z. Jones. (2016)
When Ruben—who really wants a new bike but can’t afford it—finds $100 on the sidewalk, he decides whether to use it or give it back to the person who dropped it. (Picture book)

de la Peña, Matt. Last Stop on Market Street. illus. Christian Robinson. (2015)
CJ and his Nana ride the bus to the soup kitchen as part of their Sunday ritual and see the beauty in everyone. (Picture book)

Williams, Vera B. A Chair for My Mother. (1982)
After a fire destroys their apartment, a girl uses the coins she’s been collecting to buy a comfortable chair for her grandmother and her single mother. (Picture book)

Family Structures

Coffelt, Nancy. Fred Stays with Me! illus. Tricia Tusa. (2007)
With divorced parents and two homes, a little girl feels even more connected to the dog who travels back and forth with her. (Picture book)

Lang, Suzanne & Max Lang. Families, Families, Families. (2015)
Photos of different family configurations, featuring animals drawn in a cartoony style, show readers that all families of all shapes, sizes, and species are okay. (Picture book)

Newman, Lesléa. Daddy, Papa, and Me. illus. Carol Thompson. (2009)
Rhyming text and bright illustrations make this book about a two-dad family and their child a keeper. (Board book)

Different Abilities

Cowen-Fletcher, Jane. Mama Zooms(1993)
Upbeat and fun, this books details a day in the life of a child and his mother who uses a wheelchair. (Picture book)

Stuve-Bodeen, Stephanie. We’ll Paint the Octopus Red. illus. Pam DeVito. (1998)
When she first learns her brother has Down syndrome, Emma feels crushed. But she learns that her little brother will still be able to do many of the things she dreamed of—including painting the octopus red. (Picture book)

Walsh, Melanie. Isaac and His Amazing Asperger’s Superpowers. (2016)
Isaac has Asperger’s superpowers, which he explains to the reader in this colorful, simple and accessible introduction to neurodiversity. (Picture book)


Because each center has a different policy on this, we didn’t discuss holiday books. If you’re really looking for books in this category, I’d suggest Teaching for Change as a starting point (or your friendly neighborhood librarian).

How It Went: I always get nervous at trainings like these. Who am I—a gay, white, childless, able-bodied, cis man—to teach child care providers in Southern Oregon about diversity in children’s literature? I tried my best to not present myself as an expert but, instead, as someone who cares about and loves diverse books. Because I do. And because it’s my job as a librarian to share them with everyone. I’d like to think my enthusiasm for the books is contagious.

I do want to call attention to my book choices because I’m seeing some huge problems that I didn’t see before I compiled this list. After all, I’m still on my own journey with my own anti-bias work. The journey never stops. If you look at the books above—and look closely—you will notice that all of my books in the racial identity category are actually written by white people. You will notice that most of my books in the different ability category are from 19+ years ago. You will notice that all of my books in the economic class category feature mostly characters of color as those who experience poverty*. None of these choices were conscious. I asked the students if they noticed these things. They didn’t.

Let’s remember the statistics: of 3400 children’s books published in 2016, 28% featured characters of color and First/Native Nations characters and only 6% were written by creators of color andFirst/Native Nations creators. Finding authentic, #ownvoices children’s literature is hard work. It requires effort, research and openness. My search continues. I hope that I will keep finding new and different books to share with children and colleagues.

Do you have a book to recommend in one of these categories? Share in the comments!

*For further reading on economic class in picture books coming out in 2017, check out this great post from Betsy Bird.

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