Have you ever wondered about the impact of diversity and representation in children’s books?
When my son was just 2½, we were following a cookbook to prepare that evening’s meal. My son decided that Daddy couldn’t eat the meal, and we weren’t sure why until he began pointing at the pictures in the book. He went through the pages, pointing at the smiling women who were pictured eating — all with similar skin tones (that didn’t match ours). He then pointed at his dad and said, “No Daddy!” We realized that there wasn’t anyone who looked like Daddy in the book, and that omission was clear even to a toddler.
Research shows that children aged 3–5 recognize race and attach meaning to race, picking up on messages about beauty norms, language, and cultural practices from books and other media. Children learn very early on which groups are deemed desirable or favorable to belong to. Imagine, then, the effect that classroom libraries lacking in diversity can have on children. In the United States today, books by and/or about Black, Indigenous, and People of Color make up less than 25% of children’s books.
Rudine Sims Bishop’s groundbreaking 1990 essay titled “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors” addressed the importance of children seeing themselves in books, as well as the need to see worlds and experiences beyond what they know. For nonwhite children, reading books where they are either nonexistent or portrayed in a negative light sends a message that they are devalued in society. And white children who lack exposure to characters different from themselves miss out on seeing the reality of a multicultural society and their shared connections to others. It’s for the benefit of all children to have a well-stocked and diverse classroom library.
Not sure if your classroom library is diverse? It may be time to do a quick, informal audit! You can randomly choose 25 books from your library and examine them to see if they are representative of your student population. Now, remember, the goal is not to only have a certain background represented, but to offer a selection that takes your particular class into account while also ensuring that greater diversity from outside of your community — in terms of race, gender, class, disability, and religion — are incorporated, as well. If your audit shows that it’s time to add to your collection, make sure you’re choosing books that offer more than just surface-level diversity and are not reliant on stereotypes. These tips from KQED can help you in selecting a broad and inclusive range of titles, including books authored by members of diverse groups. For additional resources, check out We Need Diverse Books, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing greater diversity to children’s books.