I just wrote a post about talking to children about race and racism. While these kinds of conversations can emerge from all kinds of experiences, don’t forget that books, movies, magazines, and TV shows all offer opportunities to dive in. No matter your racial or cultural identity, you can take a look at your bookshelf, tablet, Netflix queue, or library loans to see where you can diversify your child’s story world and start important conversations about commonalities and differences.
Diversifying our bookshelves is decidedly not the main way that we disrupt racism, homophobia or other -isms. These forces live within us and our institutions, meaning that it will take more than new books and movies to help our children navigate them. But storytelling is a powerful onramp to the work and unless you have already worked to diversify your bookshelf, don’t be surprised if you find a rather homogenous set of stories. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin has been been tracking the number of children’s and young adult books written by, illustrated by, or featuring people of color since the eighties. A round of data collection in 2017 reminds us that kids books in the U.S. still fall dismally short of mirroring our diverse communities. For example, only five percent of the 3,700 books analyzed had significant Latinx content or characters. For families of color and LGBT families, it can be difficult to find as many children’s books that reflect their identities.
This doesn’t mean that any of us should settle for homogenous shelves. Instead, it means that we might need to dig harder to do better.
Ready to take a quick baseline assessment? Start with a fairly simply criteria such as:
Does the main character have the same family structure, geography, religion, gender, or ability? Or different?
Does the main character have the same skin color as your child or different?
Is it set in a country other than the United States?
Does it include words or phrases in a language other than English?
Note the rough percentage of stories that mirror back components of your child’s identity versus providing windows into someone else’s experience. What do you notice? What do you want to keep on your shelf/queue? What do you need to add?
When you are ready, ask a deeper set of questions about these books:
Who authored the story? Do they share the same identity as the main character?
Does the story rely on thin stereotypes or present complex characters?
Do characters have any kind of cultural specificity? In other words, do we get to learn about their family, foodways, language, memories, neighborhood, etc…?
Which characters have agency in the story? Who has power?
Do you have more than one window into a racial or cultural group’s experiences? (for example, do all of the books with Black children focus on slavery or civil rights? Do all of the LGBT stories focus on bullying? Or are there other narratives as well? Read a great opinion piece on that here.)
What did these questions help you notice? What do you like about what you have found? What do you want to change?
Want to add more books to your bookshelf that either mirror their identities and experiences or offer windows into others? Talk to your child’s school librarian or visit the public library for specific recommendations. You can also find lots of great titles at the following sources:
- We Need Diverse Books
- American Library Association
- Multicultural Children's Book Day
- New York Times book list