Yes, We Need Diversity in Children's Books
And I need YOUR help writing about it
I was making a decision of the utmost importance: buying my kid her very first doll. I Googled and read reviews and consistently people kept mentioning the Stella doll by Manhattan Toys.
So I made my way to their website and found the doll. It’s a cute, fabric doll which I think is supposed to help encourage open-ended play. But what made it stand out to me is that this doll came with different skin tones and hair types.
What sorcery was this? More than three decades later, was my daughter going to have choices I never had? Is this what progress looks like, people?!?
How diverse are children’s books?
I grew up in small-town America where I was the only Indian person in my school. When kids asked me what I was, I’d tell them I was Indian. A boy in class, Joe, asked me to clarify—was I the mimicking warcry-Indian or a dot-Indian? Sigh.
It’s hard to get mad when someone asks you a question like that because their exposure is so obviously limited. When I went to the library and sought out children’s books, I didn’t see faces like mine. When I’m actively looking for books about people like me and can’t find them, how is Joe going to come across something organically?
Now things have changed quite a bit since I was growing up but there’s still a lot of room for improvement. University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center reports on diversity in children’s books and as of 2022, found the following:
Just to be clear, based on CCBC’s stats, you’re more likely to find children’s books with white characters, animal characters, or inanimate objects as main characters than someone from an underrepresented group.
I think animals are the children’s book publishing world’s cheat code for diversity. It’s so much easier to circumvent these heavy conversations when you can rely on anthropomorphized animals to tell stories and teach values.
The whole truth
If I asked a random stranger to name an Indian movie, they’d probably say Slumdog Millionaire. Which is interesting because it is not an Indian movie. A movie made by a British director (Danny Boyle) is, unsurprisingly, going to pander to the Western gaze. If there was a drinking game for every stereotype and trope it covered, you’d be passed out by the end. Want poverty porn at its finest? There’s an Academy Award-winning movie for that!
The problem isn’t that it depicted poverty—it’s that the West has always viewed India this way and the movie did absolutely nothing to balance that perspective at a time when Indians were celebrating the massive economic transformation happening in their country.
It’s wearying when people recognize you for the historical, often negative, weight of your group. No, I didn’t live in a shack in India. No, I’m not promised to someone at 8-years-old. Yes, there is electricity in India. A lot of these perceptions no longer hold but it highlights the point that many—sometimes, conflicting—narratives can exist and uncovering even a few of them can lead to a more complete view of others.
“But to insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience and to overlook the many other stories that formed me. The single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make the one story become the only story.”—Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her TED talk, The Danger of a Single Story
Yes we need to share the problematic, troubling parts of an underrepresented group’s history and present-day issues with kids. But it’s just as important to show them all the good parts too. Both stories need to be told. The wins, the frustration of mundane adversities we all encounter, and everything in between. Because when we can understand someone for all their good parts, bad parts, and the baggage they carry, we can cheer their successes more fervently, offer our shoulders in sympathy, and laugh together until we cry. Because we know them.
Building a diverse bookshelf
I desperately want to make sure I expose my kid to diverse reads. That’s something I want to do through this newsletter, too. Here’s how I’m approaching building a diverse, inclusive book collection.
Mirror books reflect you and your life experiences. In this category, I want books where characters resemble my kid. They show kids living lives that embrace their American culture and Indian heritage. Ones where the characters’ names drip off the tongue with an accent. I am certainly only buying titles written by South Asian authors.
Window books give you a peek into the life, rituals, and experiences of someone different from you. I want the bulk of our book collection to be window books. It’s not just because there are so many different groups and identities out there but because I want her to meaningfully connect with someone and to do that she needs to understand and value their complete experience.
The majority of these books will highlight diverse characters with compelling plots. A smaller amount will focus on the struggles/marginalization/etc. of an underrepresented group. It’s also these books that I want to play a very active guiding role and have ongoing conversations about what we’re reading.
This is a 2-for-1 category. I love to travel and to share that love, I want my kid to see and learn not only about all the different cultures in the world but even as far as her backyard. Teaching kids about different cultures prepares them to understand that there are different ways of doing things and those differences are what make life so interesting.
We’re talking about children’s books. Your collection is automatically disqualified if you don’t have books featuring animals!
Getting it wrong will happen
To be unequivocally clear: I’m not well-versed about the joys and struggles of any community but my own. Yes, I can relate to the immigrant and/or underrepresented person’s experience but that’s about as far as it goes. So I, and every other person on the planet, need to guard and educate myself against racism, sexism, ableism, bias, etc.
And it’s not easy. Folks have reached out to me asking about diversity in children’s books with this underlying fear of getting it wrong in how they talk about it. The right language is changing constantly. Cancel culture is everywhere. It’s overwhelming and all you want to do is get it right.
The first time I met someone who went by they/them pronouns, I just called them by their name. I’m sure they thought it was super weird that I kept repeating their name over and over again but I was anxious inside that I’d use the wrong pronouns and offend them. I was treading so carefully, I tripped and messed up. I apologized, my heart thudding, and all they said was, “Oh, it’s okay.” They weren’t hurt or deeply offended. There was no seismic shift in our relationship.
I learned and I’ll do my best to avoid making the same mistake again. I still worry I’ll get it wrong but I know that I’ll get better with more practice. If I screw up, I’ll apologize. I’m trying my best with genuine intentions and that’s all I can do. So I’m preemptively forgiving myself because I am sincerely trying.
“When the motivations are authentic, there will be respect, sensitivity, and mindfulness; an effort to cultivate cultural competence will be made… In order to be able to interact effectively with people of different cultures, racial and ethnic backgrounds, you have to admit that you have blind spots, and are ignorant of things and, more importantly, are desirous to learn. This requires engaging them as human beings, not just tools as a means to an end.”—Tokenism vs. Representation: How Can We Tell Them Apart? in DANCE Magazine
Whenever I see my kid dragging a naked-as-the-day-she-was-manufactured Sheetal by her hair, I feel pangs of envy. I’m so thankful that my kid is growing up in a time where so many people recognize the importance of diversity and care enough to educate themselves and the next generation. I’m eager to do the same. But there’s a little Brown girl in the 90s who I wish I could hug and reassure that she wouldn’t always feel so alone.
What about you?
What has been your approach to introducing kids to diversity and underrepresented groups?
How does diversity factor in to your book collection for kids?
When it comes to representation, what do you look for in the books you read?
Give me a hand…
If you or the kids in your life have ever felt underrepresented in picture books, I’d love to hear from you! I’m interested in doing a series of posts discussing your experience, what your struggles have been with the picture books you’ve found, and which ones you’ve felt joy reading. If you’re interested in sharing, let me know by filling out this brief form: