It’s tough out there in picturebook world to not notice that a lot of the popular characters are white. You’ve got Madeline, Eloise, Iggy Peck, and Harold. The other difficult piece is that the books that have multi-racial protagonists often have Caucasian authors. Take authors like Rachel Isadora and Ezra Jack Keats who produced picture books that included levels of diversity in their stories that until then had never been seen before. What does a parent give priority to? My suggestion is that it is a bit of a compromise. Here are some of my tips for choosing picture books that capture diversity:
- Look at the pictures – A book like Jazz baby may not be about diversity, but do you notice something different about the African Americans it portrays? They all have different skin tones. Usually, when a picture book offers characters of African descent they have the same shade of dark skin. It’s important to think about not just if books are showing diversity but how books are showing diversity.
- Look at the author and illustrator – One of my favorite books to read to younger children is Bee- Bim- Bop! By Linda Sue Park. This books has lovely rhythmic language, wonderful illustrations, and can start a conversation about different foods. Christian Robinson has been a favorite illustrator of mine lately. He illustrated the books Gaston and Last Stop on Market Street. He is also an African American. The children in my care know who the authors and illustrators of books are because we talk about it. I want them to know who the people are that write books and that they can look just like them. It’s important that they know that there is diversity in creating the books they read as well as in the books themselves.
- Look at the background – Where do the characters live? What does the street look like? I remember being young and being read A Chair for My Mother. The part of that story that stuck out to me the most? They live in an apartment. Not only do they live in an apartment but it also gets furnished with used things from neighbors and they have to save to buy a chair. It showed me financial diversity that other books hadn’t. Think of how many books have characters that get sent to their room or have a stay-at-home parent? It’s important that children know that there are people that live like them and also that live very differently.
- Look at the protagonist – Is the protagonist male or female? What activities do they like doing? I enjoy sharing books about girls and boys that show different sides than we have to expect in our gender stereotypes. The book Tough Boris is a strong example of that. A fierce looking, tough and frightening pirate man that happens to cry when his parrot dies is alway so fascinating for children to talk about. Try to think about the choices the protagonist makes and ask yourself if these highlight traits that you want to share with your child. It’s important that children see themselves as they are and can be in characters, and not just the common gendered stereotype.
- Look at the source material – One of the biggest shocks for me in my teaching career was to learn that a book such as Brother Eagle, Sister Sky was not a book that I should share with my classes. It says it comes from a speech given by Chief Seattle and the illustrations looked really beautiful. But, when doing further research you can find out that the speech is not accurate and sources on it vary and that the Native American illustrations are wildly inaccurate. Native Americans on the west coast didn’t live in houses that looked like that and dressed in a different manner. If we’re going to try and share about another culture using words from that culture, let’s double and triple check that they are accurate.
With these tips, we can be more aware that our children are exposed to the whole world around them and not just the world immediately around them or the world that is often thought of as normal and typical by the people that publish children’s books.