Diversity in Picture Books

by Alyssa Yenzer

Diversity in Picture Books

by Jennifer Bergen, Program and Children’s Services Manager

In 2014, a new movement began in children’s literature to increase the number of diverse characters found in books. “We Need Diverse Books” is a nonprofit organization that grew from the frustration many people felt when they noticed 90 percent or more of children’s books focused on white characters (not including books featuring animals as main characters).

The intelligent, talented and impassioned people who started or joined the movement have helped to make a real impact on the publishing industry, with programs that support writers and artists of color with awards, grants, internships and mentorships. They bring attention to the high quality books being published, and recognize publishers and booksellers who are championing the cause. In 2018, the percentage of books depicting people from diverse backgrounds increased somewhat to 23 percent, according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center.

We Need Diverse Books has a mission to “create a world in which all children can see themselves in the pages of a book,” and “to help produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people.” Now these books are put into our hands to share with children, read aloud and bring into the classroom and the home. Here are just a few recently added picture books from the Children’s section at the library that include every day diversity.

First Laugh-Welcome, Baby! by Rose Anne Tahe and Nancy Bo Flood tells the precious story of a Diné (Navajo) family watching their new baby’s tiny developments and waiting for that first amazing laugh. The Navajo have a tradition of celebrating a baby’s first laugh, the end notes explain, and the person who is able to get the baby to laugh has “the honor of hosting the First Laugh Ceremony” (“Latse Awee’ ch’ideeldloh”). Jonathan Nelson’s illustrations convey the wonder and excitement of interacting with a new baby.

In Hair Love by Matthew A. Cherry, illustrated by Vashti Harrison, Zuri appreciates that her curly dark hair can look differently depending on her mood. But one morning, none of the hairstyles her dad tries are right. One rubber band pops off a puff of hair and hits dad in the eye. When mom returns home from a trip, she loves Zuri’s “funky puff buns” that go perfectly with her superhero cape. Dad wears his hair in long dreds, and mom wears a head scarf covering her hair, and everyone is full of hair love.

Here and Now by Julia Denos is a beautifully illustrated picture book about being in the moment you are in, which is reading this book. Children and parents of all colors serenely painted by E. B. Goodale show people in the midst of various activities in different locations, just living their lives. It is a quiet but powerful message that “Right here, right now, YOU are becoming.”

Susan Verde and Peter H. Reynolds have teamed up for another winner, I Am Love, which Verde calls her “love letter to the world.” As in I Am Human, I Am Peace and I Am Yoga, a child sets out to help others he or she sees in distress, describing how each action is a part of love. With simple text and drawings, this team shows how love is comfort, and also effort; love is tiny gestures, and connection. Love is for and in all people, if we follow our hearts.

What If Everybody Thought That? by Ellen Javernick is a conversation starter with children. In each scenario presented with a double-page spread, one child is working up the courage to try something. Children are shown struggling with a sport, having a skin condition, eating ethnic food, or misspelling words. The other kids around them are silent, but their thought bubbles are clear. They assume the child can’t do it, that the child is embarrassed or just doesn’t belong. “What if everybody thought that?” is the book’s refrain. The page that shows the child’s success answers, “They might be wrong.” This book goes deeper than addressing outright name calling or unkindness. Instead, it makes us think about our assumptions and how our silence can hurt others, too. We might be wrong, so we should give everyone a chance and “be more thoughtful.”

Many good lists of diverse children’s books for the whole range of ages are out there, including some from the We Need Diverse Books website (diversebooks.org). If you find the library collection lacks books with characters that reflect your child’s life, let us know about it.