Recently on Facebook, at least in my feed of nerdy librarians of color, someone shared an infographic about diversity in picture books. Now, as a jaded, older, realist, these numbers did not surprise me. What they show me is that we still have to be intentional about showing our kids what the world looks like. Thank God, my parents taught me something about this.
As kids, my brothers and I were surrounded by lots and lots of books. My parents loved to read, and they knew how important it was to read to us. Weekends involved chores, church, and books. My mom took us to the library every Saturday. Our neighborhood library was small, but it had Cricket Magazine, and I had my own library card. Nothing much else mattered. I had the whole world at my fingertips. When life got rough, I escaped the way lots of us do – down the rabbit hole of another and another book.
When I decided to follow God’s call to be a librarian, not too many who knew me were surprised – especially my parents. By supplying and exposing my brothers and me to a variety of books, they showed us we knew we could do and be anything we wanted to be. Their secret: make sure we had books with people who looked like us.
We had books by African-American author and illustrator John Steptoe, and by Ezra Jack Keats, who I assumed was black until I found out differently as an adult. Keats wrote Snowy Day, the first picture book starring an African-American child that had nothing to do with being black. Peter was a kid who wanted to play in the snow. My girls and I go out in the snow and do all the things Peter does in the book because Peter did.
It’s crucial for your kids to see themselves in the books they read and have read to them. It’s even more vital for them to see characters in books who look different from them. The statistics in the infographic above show that the book publishing industry has work yet to do, yet there are wonderful choices of books new and old that show us the world. For a great example, get Mem Fox’s Whoever You Are. Spoiler: I can’t read it without tears flowing. The books in the photo above represent a fraction of the collection that molded our girls into people who believe they can do anything they choose to do.
Purchase books with a diversity of characters – and not just animals. Books for all ages offer a diversity of characters these days. Go to the library and check out books – doing so means the library will buy more of those kinds of books. Get suggestions from librarians and independent booksellers (that’s where you’re shopping, right?) about good titles. Even Target has excellent diversity of gender and ethnicity on their shelves lately.
Stay tuned for part two of this post, where I’ll introduce a Becoming Beloved Community and Way of Love booklist. Until then, keep showing your kids that the world is full of a bunch of people who look and act differently from each other who all want the same things. We want to be heard, we want to be seen, we want to be fed, and we want to be loved. We want to know that God created us in God’s image and that we are all okay. Picture books help us do that – no matter how old we are.