Diversity in Children’s Books and Why It’s Important

I currently work at a language immersion school in Brooklyn, New York. There are two language tracks: French and Spanish. Due to this the school library is about the most diverse I’ve ever seen, with books in three languages: English, Spanish and French. There are nonfiction books, picture books, chapter books, fiction books, history books, biographies, fairy tales, etc. etc. all in the three languages. What I find particularly fascinating is that the French and Spanish books are not just translations of works originally in English, they are often original works in those languages published in countries that speak those languages. Occasionally as well, I’ll come across a book in Spanish or French that was originally published in Chinese, Japanese or Korean.

Different cultures, different countries, different people have different perspectives and views on the world. It is important that we allow our kids access to these diverse voices. The world is made up of many people and we all ought to be able to express ourselves and see ourselves expressed in others.

Last week the school librarian sent out the following article on creating diversity in classroom book collections. It provides some great how to and how not tos on ensuring multiple perspectives, people and cultures, etc. is present in your school library. Of course the glaring statistic that comes with this article, is that it actually isn’t that easy to find this diverse array of books. As the article points out in 2018 only 23% of children’s books had multicultural characters, whereas 50% had White main characters and 27% had non-human characters. This clearly is a problem. When the vast majority of kids books are focusing on a narrow margin of people in the world you can’t possibly expect to be able to represent the breadth and depth of the human experience.

I often think about myself growing up and what I read. With my multicultural background, or the fact that I wore glasses. I don’t recall ever seeing characters that looked like me in books. When I think back on the picture books I loved reading, none of them have humans in them. They all feature introverted animal characters, which is part of the reason I liked them, because I could relate to their personality. But would it have benefitted me more, if instead of a fish or a tiger or a bull or a penguin they were a human girl who wore glasses? Maybe I wouldn’t have felt so alone if my five-year-old self had seen that.

During the early 90s, when I was growing up, American Girl was all the rage. I would read the books, and convinced my parents to get me the magazine subscription. But I desperately wanted a doll. The problem was there wasn’t a doll that looked like me. My friends all told me that I should get Molly because she wore glasses or maybe Samantha because she had brown hair. But neither of these girls really looked like me. I was 15 when they introduced Josefina. The American Girl growing up in New Mexico in the 1850s. She looked like me. Same color brown hair, same color brown eyes, and same tan skin. I got that doll for Christmas that year and bought the extra doll glasses to go with it so she could really look like me. Of course by this time, I was too old for this doll to make much of a difference in my life. But at the least the fact that she existed was something.

My current stack of children’s literature consists of one young adult novel, seven middle grade novels and nine picture books. The young adult novel has White characters. Four of the middle grade have Black main characters, one middle grade has Hispanic main characters and two are fantasy novels, which I have yet to read, so am unsure of the characters cultural identities. One of the picture books has non-human main characters and the other six feature humans. Two of the six picture books feature multicultural characters and one of those is a biography. This is a pretty diverse group of books, but I sought them out. I purposely looked for books from diverse authors with diverse characters. As that is the type of material I want to read and further that I want to write. But it is still not enough.

All my stories feature human characters. Little girls that wear glasses and look like me: brown hair, brown eyes, tan skin. They call their father Papi, not Dad or Daddy, and eat rice and beans for dinner. I didn’t see those little girls growing up and I want those little girls today to see themselves in the stories I write.

Order A Walk Through the Redwoods

If you loved this book review, you might also enjoy my debut picture book, A Walk Through the Redwoodsillustrated by Natalia Bruno. You can order it now from your favorite bookstore: Amazon, Bookshop, Barnes & Noble.