Several years ago when my sons were still small enough to fit in my lap — they are 14 and 11 now — our favorite place to hang out was the public library. As a lifelong library lover, I started taking my kids to the library before they could walk. I wanted to instill in them the same reverence and awe for books and reading that I have. Luckily, it worked.
For much longer than I expected, my sons allowed me to select their books for them to take home from the library. Selecting picture books for them shouldn’t have been so difficult. The subject matters that appealed to me personally — fairy tales about princesses and tiny people who live in walls — bored my sons to tears.
And there was the whole color and culture thing to consider.
My sons are mixed. Black-American and Spanish. One is brown with kinky hair and the other is kind of beige with loosely-curled hair. They both speak Spanish and English. Needless to say, finding books where the characters looked and sounded like my sons was hard. Very hard. And while everyone can enjoy a good story regardless of the color of the characters, kids need to see themselves represented on the page. It boosts their self-esteem, helps them navigate their own trials and tribulations in life, and sparks their creative imagination.
When my sons were about seven and four, I met a very wise mama writer who has four children, two white biological children and two African-American adopted children. She told me she never brings books into her home with only white characters. When I asked her if that felt limiting, she said yes, but she felt it was imperative that her black children always saw themselves in the stories she read to them.
Once she told me that, I decided to uphold the same standards. Why should I bring books home that only feature cute little white children who only speak English when my kids don’t look or sound like that? They already get their fair share of exposure to picture perfect white characters in magazines and at the movies. So, why not have a little literary revolution in the home?
Recent movements like #WeNeedDiverseBooks and the inspirational book drive started by 11-year-old Marley Dias who vowed to collect 1,000 books featuring African-American girls highlight the need for diversity in children’s literature. But I’ve been collecting my own diverse books for about 10 years now and while it is challenging, there are some great options out there if you know where and how to look.
Here are my tips for finding diverse books for your kids.
Look for books in other languages. I’m always on the lookout for books in Spanish for my kids. Many times the characters are various shades of brown with lovely textures of hair. If your library serves a diverse audience, they might have a decent collection of foreign language or bilingual books with diverse characters.
Find fairy tales from far away. Who doesn’t love fairy tales and folk stories? But if the princess is always fair and the hero always white, it’s not really a winner. I’ve loved finding fairy tales and folk tales from other countries. Not only do these stories offer characters that might be different colors, they also offer a glimpse into different cultures as well.
Seek out new favorites. Sure it’s easy to fall back on our own childhood literary favorites, but there are a lot of other options out there that do a better job at diversity. Some bookstores and publishers pride themselves on offering diverse titles. In Philadelphia, I love the Big Blue Marble Bookstore’s amazing selection of diverse children’s books. Lee & Low publishers have been publishing amazing books with diverse characters for more than 20 years.
Cozy up with books about animals. Sometimes you just can’t find a happy story about a little brown boy or girl, but before you give up, consider a good story with animals. Seriously, you could fill an entire bookshelf with kids’ books featuring animals and skip human protagonists altogether. From Mo Wilems’ ever-popular pigeon, to British imports like “Peppa Pig,” there’s nothing wrong with using our four-legged friends to tell a good story.