Finding Diversity in Children’s Books

By Thea Fiore-Bloom, PhD.

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Actor Karan Brar (“Diary of a Wimpy Kid”) reads at a Los Angeles elementary school. PHOTO COURTESY SAG/AFTRA FOUNDATION

Five Easy Ways to Find Inclusive Reads Your Kids Will Love

“There were tons of brown kids just like me running around the neighborhood where I grew up in East L.A. in the mid-90s, but I never came across a single book about anyone who looked like me until high school,” says Julia Casas, youth services librarian for the Santa Monica Public Library’s Ocean Park Branch.

When Casas, a Latina, cracked the covers of “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents” as a teen, she was wowed. “I said to myself, ‘These girls have dark skin, I have dark skin. The language the characters speak at home is the same language my family speaks at home.’” Casas became a youth librarian in part to help other kids have that same aha! moment – and to have it at a younger age than she did.

Chinese, African American, Korean, multiracial, Native American, Persian and Pacific Islander kids, among many other young Angelenos, still see few protagonists who look like them in most of the storybooks they encounter.

“If the only books you see featured on reading lists are stories about white kids, and you happen to be a little brown girl like I was, you start to wonder, ‘Where am I on this list? Where am I in this world?’ Diverse kids who get to see themselves reflected in the books they read begin to feel that they matter,” says Casas. “They begin to see themselves clearly and develop more self-esteem.”

But diverse books aren’t just great for diverse kids. “Children who aren’t diverse deserve to read stories about diverse characters too, because all kids benefit from reading what are referred to as ‘mirror’ and ‘window’ books,” says Casas. While mirror books emphasize a child’s inclusion in a group of people who share their culture or life circumstance, “a window book shows you a story about a culture or people different from you, so you get the opportunity to look through a window into somebody else’s world and

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Julia Casas became a youth librarian, in part, to help kids who are not white discover books peopled with characters who look and speak like they do. PHOTO COURTESY JULIA CASAS

what life is like for them,” explains Casas.

Great, inclusive children’s books allow children and parents to come away with from their pages with refreshed eyes and awakened hearts. Here are five easy ways to gather great books this fall.

Find the Magic Table 

There is an abundance of beautifully rendered, diverse storybooks out there, but you aren’t going to find many of them at big-chain bookstores. The good news is there are plenty to be borrowed free at your local library or online through interlibrary loan. Many children’s librarians select and display diverse kids’ literature on special tables in their libraries year-round.

Casas lays out a mighty fine, weekly table of kid-loving books. I should know because I loot it regularly. The Casas-curated diversity table has been a go-to resource for me in my work as a volunteer storybook reader to L.A. school kids. My classes have consistently gone gaga over the stories I’ve picked up from what I refer to as “the magic table.” The table has never failed to provide me with exciting stories that often feature heroes and heroines who look and sound like the diverse kids I read to.

Next time you are at your local library, keep your eyes peeled for a similar table in or near the kids’ section. Looking for even more books that will make your kids happy? Do what Casas does. Look for blogs written by librarians.

Find Fabulous Blogs

Casas says librarians make terrific bloggers. “There are so many librarian bloggers out there that are doing fantastic jobs,” she says. “This is why I spend most of my time online reading great blogs rather than writing my own.”

Here’s a list of her current favorite blogs and websites that focus on diversity.

  • Abby the Librarian (www.abbythelibrarian.com): This is also one of my go-tos for storytime planning. I love Abby’s blog because she’ll often include books with everyday diversity in them.
  • The Brown Bookshelf (www.thebrownbookshelf.com): Here you’ll find reviews and news on books written by African American authors or featuring African American characters.
  • Latinxs in Kid Lit (www.latinosinkidlit.com): Check this site for kids books, middle grade, and teen books written by Latinos or featuring Latino characters.
  • Fat Girl, Reading (www.fatgirlreading.com/category/book-reviews): Blogger Angie Manfredi posts thoughtful reviews of kid lit and teen books that often contain diverse characters. Her blog is another of my favorites to turn to for program ideas!
  • Rich in Color (www.richincolor.com): This site showcases young-adult fiction and nonfiction featuring people of color or people from First/Native Nations.
  • We Need Diverse Books (www.weneeddiversebooks.tumblr.com): This is a reliable place to find lots of great resources including book lists and reviews.
  • We’re the People (www.wtpsite.wordpress.com): Check out this site’s diverse summer reading lists.

Parse Professional Reviews

Casas parses through scads of reviews published in magazines such as “Publisher’s Weekly,” “Booklist” and “School Library Journal.” But you don’t have to subscribe to these to do the same. Excerpted reviews from these magazines are often included in the reviews section of a book’s Amazon page. “A lot of professional reviewers are now mentioning if there is diversity in a book or if it lacks diversity,” says Casas. “That helps me in my search for inclusivity as well. I see if the book selection is starred, and I always need to look at the cover. I do judge a book by its cover, especially if I’m going to try to sell it to kids.”

Pay Attention to Parents Like You 

Genuine reader experience can trump professional opinion. Casas supplements professional picks with searches through reviews written by parents. “I usually go to Goodreads.com or Amazon.com, but I will look at any site that’s going to tell me how well-received a book was with somebody else’s own child,” she says. “I want to know: Did their kid really relate to the book or did they think it was boring?”

Pose Questions

Out of gas, out of ideas or have no time to look online? Rest easy, your local children’s librarian has you covered. See the accompanying sidebar for some of Casas’ personal book picks in all age ranges, but she wants parents to know that their opinion and their children’s preferences are what count in the end.

“We as librarians want parents to go home with something they and their kids are excited to read,” she says. “That’s one of the most important and rewarding parts of our job.”

Diverse Reads For All Ages

Julia Casas, Santa Monica Youth Services Librarian and member of several selection committees for the American Library Association, suggests the following:

Early Reader

  • “Ling & Ting” series by Grace Lin (ages 5-8)
  • “Don’t Throw it to Mo!” by David A. Adler (ages 5-8)

Picture Book

  • “Last Stop on Market Street” by Matt De La Peña (ages 5-8)
  • “‘More, More, More’” Said the Baby” by Vera B. Williams (ages 1-7)
  • “Twenty Yawns” by Jane Smiley (ages 3-7)

Middle Grade

  • “Crossover” by Kwame Alexander (ages 9-12)
  • “It Ain’t so Awful Falafel” by Firoozeh Dumas (ages 10-13)
  • “Better Nate than Ever” by Tim Federle (ages 10-13)
  • “Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things” by Lenore Look (ages 7-9)
  • Anything written by Walter Dean Meyers or Jacqueline Woodson

Young Adult

  • “Saving Montgomery Sole” by Mariko Tamaki (ages 12 & up)
  • “Under a Painted Sky” by Stacey Lee (ages 12 & up)
  • “Out of Darkness” by Ashley Hope Pérez (ages 14 & up)
  • “Ms. Marvel volume 1: No Normal” by G. Willow Wilson (ages 12 & up)
  • “A Time to Dance” by Padma Venkatramen

Thea Fiore-Bloom, Ph.D. is a freelance writer, artist and literacy volunteer.

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Comments

  1. Multicultural Children’s Book Day is a wonderful yearly event that has a goal is of shining the spotlight on multicultural children’s books and also offers up resources for parents, caregivers, teachers and librarians so young readers can continue to “see themselves” in the pages of a book. This wonderful event promises to be bigger and better than ever. They have an awesome book/resource list that is free as well. http://multiculturalchildrensbookday.com/multicultural-reading-resources/diversity-book-lists-for-kids/

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