I came across an article in the Pacific Standard magazine recently that got me thinking about what diversity in children’s books really means. It was authored by Noah Berlatsky, a somewhat controversial writer and cartoon editor. In it he says, “Diverse kids’ literature gives children of color a chance to see themselves as heroes, which is vital. But smart, thoughtful books with non-white protagonists can also give white children a chance to see black people and people of color as something other than anxiety-producing others or stereotypes.”
About 50 years ago, presentations of diversity in primary school basal readers basically amounted to nothing more than the alteration of skin tones. It was certainly a beginning, but it seems that the publishing industry hasn’t moved much past that first important step.
A diversity focus in books should recognize that people are amazingly and wonderfully diverse. Skin tone has been used, often erroneously, to identify so many things about individuals, families and communities. As members of society who more and more freely express our values and experiences across and between communities, it becomes clear there are multiple compounding qualities that should be included in the books we offer children as a way for them to learn about the range of beauty in the people in this world. Presentations of diversity should include a range of languages, cultures, handicaps and gifts, family structures, geography, and even publication genres, like poetry, drama, song, dance and costume.
Factual books that present a vast array of everyday life and lifestyles offer children growing up in consistently homogenous homes and neighborhoods a way to encounter a world different from their own. And diversity in books can introduce differences in ways that are not disorienting or fearful, but as welcoming horizons and frontiers to discover and from which to learn. In the relaxed and loving arms of family, the reading of such books leads children to deeper and wider development of maturing concepts of humanity, and invites rich conversation and inquiry. Diversity in books also readies young ones for school. It heads off potential culture shock and helps children be prepared to gleefully interact with others who look, speak and live quite different from themselves.
And I would argue that while children of color certainly need to see faces and places that are familiar to them in the books they read, it may be more important for white children to see faces and places that are foreign to them.
So, “Who REALLY needs diverse books?” I believe the answer is “EVERYONE!” Kids, parents, educators, family and neighbors of all colors, ethnicities and backgrounds need diverse books. And we can all play a part in ensuring children’s likelihood of success on day one of school and in life by seeking out and lovingly sharing such books with our youngest learners.