Books are powerful. In 1990, Rudine Sims Bishop, professor at Ohio State University, penned what would become an iconic essay in the world of children’s literature titled, "Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors." In short, she argued that books reflect readers’ own lives and give glimpses into others’. Bishop warned how imbalances can warp children’s perceptions of the world. A predominance of mirrors makes it seem as though the whole world is the same. Exposure to only windows can leave a child wondering, “But what about me?”
One of the many unearned privileges of being a white family is that “mirror” books aren’t hard for us to find. If you’re a parent to a child of color, though, you’ve probably already thought about "the apartheid of children's literature."
The good news is that there have been major initiatives in recent years to encourage more diversity in children’s books. I began thinking more about diverse books when we moved from San Jose, California, where we were regularly in the minority at the playground, to a small town in Maine. We love where we live – the view from our actual window is gorgeous – but I want my children to know that many kids look and live differently than they do. Books can help. These questions helped me stay tuned into balancing our family reading diet.
I’m not talking about books about slavery and civil rights, although those are important titles too. Decades ago, books like "The Snowy Day" and "Corduroy" were unusual in that they showed children of color doing regular things like playing outside and shopping. Luckily, more such titles are hitting the shelves each year. Sometimes my kids bring up a character’s appearance or ethnicity, but mostly, we just enjoy the stories. Here are some of our family favorites:
This story tells about a mom and son spending a peaceful day canoeing near their home. The descriptions of wildlife appeal to my kids and the nonfiction information at the end helps answer their questions.
Proud, Peruvian-Scottish-American Marisol is just about the most lovable children’s book character out there. She likes so many things that she can’t decide what kind of birthday party to have. She ends up doing it her way, as a soccer-playing pirate unicorn in purple high tops. The icing on the cake is a surprise Skype call from her grandmother in Peru.
My kids are always amazed that Jabari wants to jump off such a high diving board at the local pool. Jabari makes the dive and the family celebration is priceless.
This is the perfect story for my son, who loves glitter and pink. Casey begs his parents and Abuelita to let him wear a skirt, sparkly nail polish, and jewelry. They agree, and when he’s teased at the library, his sister comes to his defense.
When a boy gets a goldfish for his birthday, he makes big plans to trade him for a more exciting pet. Before he can make it to the pet store, though, sweet little Norman proves himself to be a faithful companion.
A dad takes his daughter grocery shopping while Mom stays home to work, subtly bucking traditional gender roles. The errand turns into a hilarious adventure when the little girl sneezes and sets off a chain of events that upsets an entire display. Books about biracial families can be hard to find, so that adds to the appeal of this title.
Of course, the books that broaden your kids’ perspectives will depend on your actual perspective. My family knows a lot about winter weather and lobsters, but not as much about city buses and chopsticks. These titles give us the chance to talk about the world beyond our little corner:
The catchy rhyming text describes how a family prepares and eats a traditional Korean meal. My kids love to join in when we read it and the recipe in the back even inspired them to request bee-bim bop for dinner.
Farah, a new immigrant, navigates a school field trip to an apple orchard. Eve Bunting sensitively portrays her cultural confusion and limited English, and the immediate kindness displayed by her classmates is touching.
This title is deservingly well decorated with awards. CJ and his grandmother ride the city bus route to help out at a soup kitchen. CJ – with all his complaining – is relatable, and the story gives us so much to talk about.
We’re expecting our fourth child, so my older kids are well-versed in the arrival of babies. This mother’s bedtime story about her child’s adoption from China captivates them, though, and initiates conversations about the many ways families are made.
In her village in the mountains of Guatemala, Ixchel wants to weave like her mother. Thread is at a premium, so she has to improvise. She ends up twisting up colorful plastic bags, cleaning up her village in the process. This fascinating story – with its factual roots – offers a new viewpoint for everyone in our family.
This book shares details of the lives of children in Italy, Japan, Peru, Uganda, Russia, India, and Iran, from what they eat for breakfast to what they play after school. It isn’t a new book concept, but this one is thoughtfully done. Whether we read just a few pages or the whole book, we all appreciate the diversity and the common connections.
It takes a village!
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