Diverse children reading books

Finding and Sharing Diverse Voices in Children’s Books

Finding and Sharing Diverse Voices in Children’s Books

Indicator 6: Elementary and Secondary Enrollment

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 races and ethnic backgrounds is through diverse voices within the books in our classroom libraries.

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.

Luckily, books by and about minorities and multicultural populations have burst onto the literary scene in recent years. And that is important because our students of color finally have books that can speak to them on a deeper personal level.

“When I think about the books that have resonated most with my students, it’s the books that help them feel seen, heard, and valued. As a teacher and librarian, I always want to help my students find their own stories,” Mary Ann Scheuer explained in Larry Ferlazzo’s June 2020 EdWeek article. “We need books that show many different experiences, so our readers can see themselves reflected in the pages. Our characters must represent polylithic experiences, made of many different elements to their identities.”

Principals and district leaders should bolster and encourage teachers’ efforts to bring these historically silenced voices into their classrooms. The perspectives found in some diverse books may be new to white children and their parents and may even challenge them on a cultural level – but that is a part of learning.

When district leaders don’t support teachers in this effort, it diminishes the learning experience, as Carly Muetterties and Laura H. Darolia explained in the beginning of their 2020 NCSS article, Considering Different Perspectives in Children’s Literature: An Inquiry Approach that Promotes Civic Learning.

Also, as we read these books with our students, we need to discuss the importance of perspective and voice. Hearkening back to Bishop’s guidance, we should ponder whether a story is a window or a mirror — or maybe even both.

“This depends on the perspective of the reader, of course. It’s important to discuss this question as a classroom community so that students can find meaning in their own perspective and the perspective of others,” Don Vu, an elementary principal, explained in a November 2019 Edutopia article.

Finally, for some students, the books they see in the classroom may be the only ones they ever really pick up and read.

“The only way to truly know which books will resonate with students is to put books out there — lots of them,” said author ReLeah Cossett Lent in Ferlazzo’s June 2020 EdWeek article. “Reading is a journey based on aspects as varied as interests, background, fears, imagination, curiosity, desire, or need — and that is why a book often resonates with readers for reasons we’ll never know. Sometimes, the most we can do is open the door and encourage them to enter.”

Here are just a few picture book suggestions to get you started opening those doors:

Black 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.”

I Am Every Good Thing

By Derrick Barnes
Illustrated by Gordon C. James

NCTE Charlotte Huck Award Winner

Written in poetry, the “confident Black narrator of this book is proud of everything that makes him who he is” — including all his successes, and his struggles.

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 Latino neighborhood.

Islandborn

By Junot Díaz
Illustrated by Leo Espinosa

2020 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.

Mango, Abuela, and Me

By Meg Medina

A 2016 Pura Belpré Author and Illustrator Awards Honor Book

Mia’s abuela moves in with the family, but doesn’t speak English. And Mia doesn’t speak Spanish. So Mia comes up with a plan.

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.

We are Water Protectors

By Carole Lindstrom
Illustrated by Michaela Goade

2021 Caldecott Medal

A book celebrating Indigenous-led movements across North America to protect Earth’s water supply. 

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 book cover

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.

Eyes That Kiss in the Corners

By Joanna Ho
Illustrated by Dung Ho

A young Asian girl notices the differences in the shape of her eyes from her friends. Her eyes are like her mother’s, her grandmother’s, and her little sister’s, and through their example, she “she recognizes her own beauty and discovers a path to self-love and empowerment.”

Various Voices

Benny Doesn't Like to Be Hugged

Benny Doesn’t Like to Be Hugged

By Zetta Elliott
Illustrated by Purple Wong

A little girl describes her friend, and doesn’t mind when he is “fussy” because “true friends accept each other just the way they are.”

I Talk Like a River

By Jordan Scott
Illustrated by Sydney Smith

Schneider Family Book Award Winner

This empathetic story celebrates self-acceptance through the experience of a boy who stutters, and shows us that “sometimes it takes a change of perspective to get the words flowing.”

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.”

Noah Chases the Wind

By Michelle Worthington
Illustrated by Joseph Cowman

Noah thinks and feels in different ways than other children, and this book “celebrates the inquisitive nature of all children, as well as the unique characteristics of children on the autism spectrum.”

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.


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