No doubt, learning about injustice and oppression is important. Teaching kids about social justice matters. We should be sharing these stories with children. However, when all we focus on is injustice, we fail to create characters that all children can identify with, and we fail to help other children learn about the similarities that are present among other races, cultures, communities, and marginalized groups.
Not all LGBTQ books should be coming-out stories or bullying stories. Not all stories with black characters should focus on slavery. Diversity in children’s books is growing; however, many of these stories still focus too heavily on oppression and injustice, on “the problem.”
White characters in children’s books deal with a wide variety of issues that have absolutely nothing to do with their race. They grapple with heavy personal issues and they go on fun, exciting adventures, too. So why do we continue to focus on oppression in diverse books? Black characters, Latino characters, characters with disabilities, gay characters and all other characters should be created in such a way that they are more than just their races, their disabilities, or their sexual orientations.
The Risks of Focusing Solely on Oppression
Focusing solely on oppression and injustice or on the struggles of having a disability, for example, doesn’t allow children to see others around them as people similar to themselves. It reduces the complexity of their lives to a teaching lesson, to a life of suffering, or to a source of pity.
Oppressive narratives are often restrictive and inadequate, and sometimes, even stereotypical. And they’re often void of creativity and imagination. Non-fiction children’s books about black historical figures, for example, can help teach black children about their history; but children also want to find aspects of their ethnic heritage and their culture outside of their history books. They want to see characters like themselves having adventures in space, fighting zombies, and having typical days at school. Ethnic-themed lists appeal to parents, but children want more. They want diverse characters they can identify with in fun, exciting stories. Focusing solely on oppression often sacrifices the cultivation of wonderment that embodies high-quality children’s books and prevents children from being able to identify with characters and better understand themselves and those around them.
Books featuring diverse characters in myriad situations doesn’t just benefit the marginalized groups reading the stories, either. It also benefits all children, allowing them to understand those around them much more than books on ethnic traditions or historical figures could ever allow.
A Healthy Mix of Diversity in Children’s Books
There needs to be a healthy mix of diversity in children’s books. Some books should celebrate the differences between groups, and others should speak out about injustice. But we also need diverse children’s books that teach inclusion.
There needs to be more books with diverse characters without focusing on problems, struggles, and injustices. Culture and race, disabilities, and sexual orientation can be organically weaved through stories in a way that isn’t so forced. These aspects of the characters’ lives can be part of the story, without being the story. Authors of children’s books should be depicting characters of colour, characters with disabilities, and other marginalized groups doing many things, in all sorts of places. And just as importantly, teachers and librarians must commit to reading and promoting these types of books to children.
Books can—and should—act as both mirrors and windows for kids. In some books, children may find characters who look, sound, and feel emotions just like they do, mirroring their own thoughts and actions and helping them connect to the stories and putting them on a path of self-discovery.
In others, the stories act more like windows, allowing them to learn about new life experiences or cultures and helping them build understanding and empathy for the lives of those around them. Diverse books can also be windows as mirrors. By reading about diverse characters who, on the outside, seem nothing like them, children can see that others are actually very similar to them in many ways. They can find parts of themselves in these characters.
Many people are underrepresented in children’s books, though strides are being taken. Diverse books can help kids relate, not only to the characters, but to those around them.
Relating to Characters Who Are Like You
When reading, we all want to be able to relate to the characters in the book. Unfortunately, there are many people who have trouble finding books that allow them to do so due to a significant lack of diversity, from characters with disabilities to characters of different sexual orientations, religions, and races.
There’s no doubt that we need diverse books. All children should be able to identify with the stories, the characters, and the communities that are represented in the books that they read. All children deserve to find books that help them build images of who they are and who they could be.
Diverse books aim to place marginalized and underrepresented persons and communities in stories, so more kids can find themselves in the books they read.
Relating to Those Who Aren’t Like You
Diverse books don’t just help more children relate to characters who are like them, however. They also help kids relate to people of other races, cultures, and communities. They help kids learn what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes, such as what it’s like to have a different culture or a physical or mental disabilities. Diverse books allow children to expand their horizons, which is something everyone can benefit from.
By exploring diverse characters in children’s books, kids can better understand others in the world around them. They can better understand that people who are different from them are still full and complex human beings, and they can better realize that these seemingly different people are actually quite similar to them in many ways.
Helping to Start Discussions
Diverse children’s books are important tools for starting conversations with children about differences and disabilities, both inside of the classroom and out. They provide a starting point for teachers and parents to teach children about global awareness and inclusion. They can also provide positive messages and images about those who are different, help develop understanding and awareness, and help promote positive attitudes, acceptance, and respect for those differences.
We Need Diverse Books is more than just an organization; it’s a movement. People of colour and people who have been historically underrepresented in books are taking a stand. And thankfully, some publishers have listened. They understand the many reasons to create—and to read—multicultural books for children.
Here are just a few of those reasons.
1. Society Is Diverse
We live in a global society. People emigrate from all over the world to live in Canada. Cultures, races, and religions are all mixed together. We are all living as one. Only creating white characters in books simply isn’t representative of the diversity that exists in society today, especially in Canada where diversity plays an important role. Multicultural books for children with characters of different ethnicities present a realistic picture of society.
2. Understanding Those Around Us
Diverse books also enhance our understanding of different cultures, ethnicities, and experiences. This can help us relate to those we interact with. Because we live in a multicultural society, reading diverse books to children can help them develop empathy and acceptance towards their peers and nurture meaningful relationships in classrooms, on playgrounds, and beyond.
3. Taking Us Back to Our Roots
Ethnic-centric children’s books are valuable. They can help open up conversations with children about their roots—their ancestors, their heritages, and their family traditions. It can help children better understand why they dress a certain way or eat certain foods when others in their classes do not, for example.
4. Linguistic Diversity
Diverse books also allow for linguistic diversity. Multicultural books for children that are set in a cultural backdrop, like Missing Nimâmâ, often have words scattered in the text or have a glossary in the back in the affiliated language. Bilingual books are not only fun for children, but they also offer a great way to introduce children to new languages.
5. Global Awareness
Although we’re certainly advocates of Canadian literature, we also understand the importance of reading books from around the world. Multicultural books for children that are set in other areas of the world offer informative historical and geographical details. They also improve global awareness for kids. Plus, these types of books can also take children to faraway places that they may never be able to visit, expanding their horizons while they read in the comfort of their own homes.
6. Abolishing Stereotypes
Stereotypes, skewed images, and clichés of different cultures abound in the media. High-quality multicultural books for children can abolish stereotypes and dispel common myths and misconceptions, helping children learn facts and see real portrayals of marginalized groups.
7. Identifying with Characters
All kids deserve to read stories with characters, cultures, and communities that they can relate to. It’s only natural that we would want to relate to the characters in a book. But mainstream books make it very difficult for marginalized groups to be able to do so. Diverse books can help more children, from varying backgrounds, find stories that they can relate to and characters that they can identify with. This can foster a love of reading and put children on a path of self-discovery.
Children’s reading diets should be well balanced. Multicultural children’s books can open up the world, help kids identify and relate, and help them become more prepared for anything that life brings them.