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Research has shown that infants are aware of differences in skin color, and by the age of 5 kids understand that skin color is associated with status in our country. There is research-based evidence that kids of color are negatively impacted by these stereotypes, and they aren’t good for white children either.

 

Books are one tool to use to teach your child to understand racism and bias. As part of our series on racism and diversity in children’s books, read further to find tips for how to diversify the reading you do as a family.

How to make sure you are building a diverse shelf of books

When we talk about the importance of books providing mirrors and windows for kids, every book you choose doesn’t need to be explicitly focused on social justice or social issues. Books like Anti-Racist Baby are great places for parents to jump into family conversations, but they are not always the best bedtime read. 

While picking books with and for your child, think about who the book focuses on and who wrote it. Choosing books from #ownvoices authors with a variety of identities is an easy way to help your child begin to see the world for the diverse place that it is. Look for books that reflect your child’s identity and books that will help them understand other’s identities.

More tips for choosing books from Embrace Race

Is the book compelling, with vivid language, images, and well-developed characters that will make them feel something? Will kids be drawn to the characters?

Are diverse characters the stars of the story? How the characters are represented in books matters as much as who is represented. Look for books with strong characters of color in everyday life so kids don’t absorb the idea that the lives of people who are different from them are only about struggle. 

Consider the experience and expertise of the authors. You can refer to our book lists below for help finding #ownvoices stories!

Look for books that depict positive interactions across differences. These stories have been shown to reduce the intergroup anxiety that leads to prejudice.

9 Types of Diverse Books

Diverse Book Finder developed 9 types of diversity you can look for in books.

Any Child Books featuring BIPOC in which race, ethnicity, tribal affiliation, culture, im/migration, and/or religious, sacred, or origin stories are not central to the story.

Beautiful Life: A Focus on Identity Books featuring BIPOC in which race, ethnicity, tribal affiliation, culture, im/migration, and/or religious, sacred, or origin stories are central to the story.

Biography Narrative nonfiction books about the life of a particular person or group of people from a historical or contemporary perspective.

Cross-Group: Relationships Across Difference Books portraying relationships between named characters across racial or cultural differences, including but not limited to those depicting peer group and cross-generational friendships.

Folklore Books featuring tales, proverbs, songs, or legends/myths that transmit the values, knowledge, traditions, or practices/rituals of a people.

Incidental: Ensemble or Background Characters Books featuring a racially diverse cast of non-primary characters; or books featuring a white or animal main character(s) with BIPOC as secondary or background characters.

Informational: Factual Content Narrative books, with or without a storyline, presenting factual information; may be encyclopedic. BIPOC are depicted but race/culture is not always central to the content.

Oppression and Resilience Books about group-based injustice and struggles for justice.

Race/Culture Concepts: Examining Difference and Commonalities Books that explore and/or compare specific aspects of human difference, inviting readers to consider varying perspectives related to race, ethnicity, culture, or tribal affiliation.

 

Diversity isn’t limited to race. Everyone has many identities that make up who they are–gender, culture, physical and mental ability, race, age, family income, sexual orientation, religion, education, ethnicity, and more. As you read throughout the year, try to find books that have characters across the different identity types. You might even want to create your own book audit to track what you’re reading!

It’s also important to consider what books you own as a family. Do your books reinforce or counteract messages that teach children to feel inferior or superior because of their skin color, gender, family income, able-bodiedness, or type of family structure? Use our guide linked below to examine your own collection.

 

Inviting a critical conversation about diversity is not about calling out or shaming individual books, authors, illustrators, or publishers. It’s about the subtler, knottier work of changing institutions and attitudes that enforce dubious conventions and defaults that acquire the luster of “tradition” or “popular taste.” It’s about ensuring that we move beyond representational inclusion towards systemic inclusion, which would include a long-term commitment to diverse writers, editors, publishers, and reviewers (through mentorships, grants and paid internships). And it’s about respecting children and not underestimating their willingness to take on thorny, thought-provoking subjects or their openness in approaching the complicated and unfamiliar–especially if the stories are beautiful, funny, dramatic, and non-medicinal!

-Author Kyo Maclear

Why is it difficult to find books by #ownvoices authors?

It’s been 30 years since Dr. Bishop wrote, “In this country, where racism is still one of the major unresolved social problems, books may be one of the few places where children who are socially isolated and insulated from the larger world can meet people unlike themselves.”

For many years, nonwhite readers have too often found the search for mirrors in books futile and the publishing industry has only recently begun to catch up. According to statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, people of color are slowly gaining more representation each year, and yet children’s books are still dominated by white characters.

What about at the library?

You can see the percent of white authors was much higher that characters of color. We found that a lot of picture books that were illustrated with BIPOC characters were authored and/or illustrated by white illustrators.

We also continue to create and refine our book lists, so check back often. As you navigate the vast sea of children’s literature, ask staff for help and feel free to offer suggestions for us to purchase. We are always happy to help!  

In the youth department, knowing the importance of books as windows and mirrors, we are trying to re-develop collections so they provide mirrors for all kids in our extremely diverse community.

Last year before the pandemic, we conducted an audit of new youth books we purchased over a 4 month period in the Whittaker Youth Department. You can see some of the results in the graphs to the right.

Because we only audited new books, if we included all of the older books that are predominated by white authors, the graph would be vastly different. We’ll continue to prioritize making our collection reflective of our community. and conduct periodic audits to make sure we’re on the right track. 

Learn more about racism in classics by visiting other topics in our series

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