Multicultural children reading

Finding and Sharing Diverse Voices in Children’s Books

NCES Chart
Courtesy NCES

The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that by 2027, 55% of elementary and secondary students will be minorities. Students of color already total a little more than 50% of school enrollment across the nation.

As our student population evolves, our education resources must evolve as well. One way to support students of all colors is through diverse voices within the books in our classroom library.

In choosing diverse books, many educators use a framework set up in Shadow and Substance by Rudine Sims Bishop, former professor at Ohio State University Columbus. Bishop’s work postulates that books can be “windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange.”

“These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created and recreated by the author,” she continued, as quoted in a 2019 OSU article.

These same windows, with different lighting, can become mirrors, she explained. In that case, “Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience.”

As educators of the next generation of students, we can use this metaphor to guide our choices of the children’s books we share with students, and gear our selections towards including all voices and all experiences.

But we can’t just populate our class library shelves with books about Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Pocahontas, or César Chávez . As University of Pennsylvania associate professor Ebony Elizabeth Thomas pointed out in a 2019 EdWeek article by Sarah Schwartz, too often, our books with minority main characters deal only with historical events and injustices.

“The white child gets all kinds of mirrors of the self in literature. Endless, countless adventures. The full range of history — the good, bad, and the ugly. Whereas other children only get a very narrow slice of that history,” Thomas said in the article.

Books by and about minorities and multicultural populations have burst onto the literary scene in recent years. Here are just a few picture book suggestions to get you started:

African American Voices

Sulwe
By Lupita Nyong’o
Illustrated by Vashti Harrison

2020 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Award

Sulwe’s skin color is darker than everyone in her family, but she wants to be beautiful and bright, like her mother and sister. “Then a magical journey in the night sky opens her eyes and changes everything.”

The Undefeated
By Kwame Alexander
Illustrated by Kadir Nelson

2020 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award

This book highlights black life in the United States through historic and present heroes and experiences.

Thank You, Omu!
By Oge Mora
Illustrated by Frank Morrison

2019 Coretta Scott King Award Illustrator

Omu shares her stew with her neighborhood, and is rewarded by her community.

Hispanic American Voices

My Papi Has a Motorcycle
By Isabel Quintero
Illustrated by Zeke Peña

2020 Pura Belpré Award Illustrator Honor

Daisy’s father takes her on an exciting motorcycle ride to see important places in her busy Latinx neighborhood.

Islandborn
By Junot Díaz
Illustrated by Leo Espinosa

2019 Pura Belpré Award Illustration Honor

As Lola discovers her own past, she learns “about the magic of memory and the infinite power of the imagination.”

Alma and How She Got Her Name
By Juana Martinez-Neal

2019 Caldecott Honor Book

Alma Sofia Esperanza José Pura Candela feels she has way too many names, so she turns to her father for answers.

Native American Voices

Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story
By Kevin Noble Maillard
Illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal

2020 American Indian Youth Literature Honor Winner

This story shares how a family meal binds together a modern Native American family

Fall in Line, Holden!
By Daniel W. Vandever

2018 American Indian Youth Literature Honor Winner

This children’s book tells of Holden, a Navajo student, who attends a boarding school. “While surrounded by a world that requires him to conform and follow strict rules, Holden’s imagination creates a colorful world of excitement.”

Birdsong
by Julie Flett

2020 American Indian Youth Literature Honor Winner

When a young girl moves from the country to a small town, she feels lonely and out of place, but soon bonds with the elderly woman next door.

Asian/Pacific American Voices

Bilal Cooks Daal
By Aisha Saeed
Illustrated by Anoosha Syed

2020 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature

“Bilal introduces his friends to his favorite dish — daal! — in this charming picture book that showcases the value of patience, teamwork, community, and sharing.”

Drawn Together
By Minh Lê,
Illustrated by Dan Santat

2019 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature

The story of a Thai-American boy and his grandfather, who seem to not share many things in common, but their relationship changes over a shared love of art.

Grandmother’s Visit
By Betty Quan
Illustrated by Carmen Mok

2019 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature

Grace’s grandmother lives with her family, and Grace loves her teachings and stories about growing up in China. When Grandmother dies, Grace learns how to say goodbye.

Various Voices

The Day You Begin
By Jacqueline Woodson
Illustrated by Rafael López

A book that “reminds us that we all feel like outsiders sometimes — and how brave it is that we go forth anyway.”

Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match
By Monica Brown
Illustrated by Sara Palacios

Marisol, a biracial Peruvian-Scottish-American girl, doesn’t match any of her classmates. But she doesn’t mind.

This listing highlights just a few children’s picture books with diversity of voice and experience. With a little digging, you can find plenty more, plus fabulous chapter books for older readers. 

A great place to start is WeNeedDiverseBooks.org.

Social Studies is one of the best ways to introduce your students to diverse voices and experiences in history. Explore more with a 30-Day Free Trial of Studies Weekly Online.

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