#ColorMyShelf: Why Kids Need Books That Reflect Diversity

BlogHer Original Post

[Editor's Note: On Sunday, The New York Times published a piece by children's author Walter Dean Myers, Where Are the People of Color in Children's Books?, which has sparked the #colormyshelf trend on Twitter. The topic of diversity in literature is one we've been following and here are some thoughts and suggestions. --Grace]

When you think of your favorite children’s picture books, did the main character look like you? When I think back of my own favorite childhood books, I cannot remember a single one that featured an Asian girl. More likely there was a fantasy creature or a talking animal, than a character who looked or lived like me.

kids books

Image Credit: yoshimov, via Flickr

According to a new study, nearly 80% of U.S. adults believe it’s important for kids to be exposed to picture books that feature main characters of various ethnicities – but nearly one-third report having difficulty finding such books. Those are some of the findings of a survey commissioned by the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to enhancing the love of reading and learning in all children.

While multicultural reading choices improved greatly since my own childhood, the need for diversity still far outweighs the availability. “Even today, these books are few and far between,” says Deborah Pope, Executive Director of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, who notes that only 9% of 3,400 books published in 2010 for children and teens had significant minority content.

A look around the Internet at websites that feature multicultural kid lit shows that I wasn’t the only one who had problems finding books relevant to my cultural experience. Says Terry Hong of Smithsonian BookDragon (the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program’s excellent website of multicultural book reviews):

Except for maybe The Five Chinese Brothers which was published in 1938 – no, I’m not THAT old yet! – I can’t remember a single book growing up that featured characters with whom I could readily identify. And something about that book was always unsettling to me, even as a child.

Not until I was an adult, after I had graduated from college and moved to Northern California, did I see my very first children’s book that featured Asian Pacific American characters. Based on a real-life character, Pie-Biter by Ruthanne Lum McCunn featured a young Chinese immigrant who arrived in the American West in the late 1800s to work on the transcontinental railroad and, as tall tales go, got his strength from eating pies.

It’s not surprising that many multicultural mom-bloggers have an interest in writing about kids’ books that show diversity.

Stephanie Meade features multicultural book reviews on InCultureParent. She says:

So many people in our generation are interested in exposing their kids to diversity and all things multicultural, whether it be through music, food, books, travel and/or languages. However, while I have seen so many more books about different cultures, books about mixed families, like my own, are still pretty limited.

My family situation, with two cultures and two religions— my husband Muslim and my not—is something I have yet to see portrayed in a children's book. I circumvent it by getting books from both sides—we read books about Christmas and Ramadan, for example, when it's holiday time. And I especially make sure my kids have enough representation in our books from the Muslim side since that identity is the tougher one to find positive representation about in everyday life in the U.S.

For many similar reasons, I created a Summer Reading list on my own blog, HapaMama, featuring titles about Asian mixed-race experiences for kids, teens and adults.

Diversity in reading is becoming such a hot topic that even NPR’s Tell Me More is hosting a Summer Blend Book Club , featuring stories of the mixed-race experience, including titles for Young Adults.

Multicultural Books Aren’t Just for Minorities

While it’s important for kids to read stories that help them understand and feel proud of their own culture, multicultural books aren’t just for ethnic families. Books are a great way to expose all young minds to different cultures and experiences.

Young children learn by what they see—they need to have quality books that show what joins us rather than what separates us. I'd like to encourage the children's publishing industry to offer more books that portray people of all colors and ethnicities. --Deborah Pope, Ezra Jack Keats Foundation

Advice for Selecting Children's Picture Books

Here are Pope's suggestions for choosing picture books of quality that will raise a child's awareness of diversity:

  • Build a diverse home library. Take a look at the books on your child's shelves and decide how you'd like to balance the images of the children your child will see there.
  • Look for books that walk the walk. There are many books that teach diversity as an issue or highlight the holidays of different ethnic groups. But it is also important to expose your child to books that feature children of different races or ethnicities doing everyday things — talking about what they want to be when they grow up, having an adventure, or playing in the snow like Peter, the main character in The Snowy Day.
  • Make it real. There are many picture books that cloak diversity messages in stories where animals, robots and aliens have human qualities. But children also need to see picture books that illustrate real children of various ethnicities and races all getting along.
  • Ask those "in the know." Talk to your friends, your children's teachers and local librarians and ask for their top multicultural choices. Also, search online for children's book awards that focus on promoting good books with characters of different backgrounds for recommendations.

    I especially like the point that it’s important to expose kids to books that feature people of different races of ethnicities doing everyday things. Stories that take place in faraway lands can feel distant, and if the only time different colored faces show up is to teach about diversity or foreign cultures, it can feel a bit preachy or “after school special”.

    Also, to help teachers incorporate multicultural books into their curriculum, the University of Arizona is offering twelve $1000 Worlds of Words grants for for literacy communities who want to explore the use of global literature to build international understanding.

    Other sites for multicultural book recommendations:

  • Latinos for Latino Lit
  • Pragmatic Mom
  • American Indians in Children's LIterature
  • Multicultural Familia
  • What are your favorite multicultural children’s books or resources?

    Or, leave a comment telling us what kind of books you are looking for… maybe some other BlogHers know of a title that would fit your needs!

    Race and Ethnicity Section Editor Grace Hwang Lynch blogs at HapaMama and A Year (Almost) Without Shopping.

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