I ambled around the children’s section of a big, chain bookstore, browsing picture books. Around me, I saw a couple of Indian-Americans reading books. A woman in a hijab, with a Starbucks in hand, watched her son play at the train table. I also heard a distant chatter in several different languages. And yet, none of the books on display mirrored this heterogeneity around me.
I stood there and wished the books that reflected the people around me were mainstream—powerful, influential, and easily accessible.
It’s time to change that the books we’ve come to accept as mainstream in children’s literature today center white narratives and characters. We need more diverse stories in the hands of all children. Why does this matter?
1. It is important that books reflect the diversity that exists in societies today. A book that includes people like ourselves as well as those that look different from us presents a more realistic picture to a child. Even board boards can offer this. “Babies” by Gyo Fujikawa is a great example. Published in the sixties, it was the first children’s book to show infants of different races.
2. Understanding cultures enhances the understanding of the experiences of those we interact with. This helps children develop empathy towards peers, nurturing meaningful relationships in classrooms and playgrounds. “Lailah’s Lunchbox: A Ramadan Story” by Reem Faruqi is a beautiful story about a little girl excited to fast for the holiday while trying to share her culture in a new school.
3. A language (or linguistic diversity) is a tangible form of realizing cultural differences. Picture book stories set in a cultural backdrop often scatter words in the affiliated language. This is both fun and fascinating for kids. Bilingual books are also a wonderful way to introduce and experience languages.
4. Books that take us back to our cultural roots are always valuable. These books open up discussions about family ancestry and heritage. They also help children identify family traditions and find answers to why they eat specific foods or dress a certain way. “The Keeping Quilt” by Patricia Polacco is a heartwarming story spanning several generations and traditions—it dates back to the author’s great-grandmother’s initial immigrant days (from Eastern Europe) in America.
5. Diverse children’s books often come with geographical details and historical references. Besides being informative, they also heighten a child’s awareness of our world. I am reminded of Amadi, in the book “Amadi’s Snowman” by Katia Novet-Saint-Lot. The Nigerian village boy is intrigued by the picture of a “strange-looking man” (a snowman!) he chances upon in a book. This actually makes him want to learn to read.
6. Most mainstream books, sadly, have a tendency to stereotype. The media is notorious for its clichéd portrayals, like the skewed images of Africa or the Middle East. Children’s literature is no exception. Diverse children’s books dispel misconceptions and break stereotypes associated with a specific culture or community.
7. It is natural for us to try to relate to a character or story as part of the reading experience or to assert our own identities. This becomes particularly important for kids belonging to minority groups that are largely underrepresented in literature, and for children of an immigrant, biracial and bicultural parents as they try to explore and discover where they belong. Diverse books include their unique experiences and address the challenges they face. Pooja Makhijani’s “Mama’s Saris” was a favorite in our home for several years when my daughter was younger as we easily identified with the context—a seven-year-old Indian-American girl delighted in her mom’s collection of colorful wear, a common scenario in our own house.
8. Diverse books often embrace stories focusing on divergent themes that step outside the dominant social and cultural norms. These include themes like adoption, immigration, racism, being differently-abled, divorce, war, grief, holidays, sexual orientation, and gender stereotyping, to name a few. The anti-bias and anti-racist approach of these books better represents the community we are part of, with its differences stretching even beyond cultures and skin colors.
9. Not all of us can travel the world whenever we want. But diverse books can take us to faraway places while still in the comfort of our home. “The Barefoot Book of Children” takes children on a trip around the world, into many distinctly unique homes, families, and lifestyles.
10. Ultimately, books that open up the world are essential for a child’s well-balanced reading diet. When children grow up exposed to diverse cultures, people and places, they become much more open to exploring broader possibilities in friendships, careers, relationships, and decision-making. Without ignorance and prejudices inhibiting them, they can be prepared for wherever life takes them and whatever life brings.