” The Power Of Children’s Picture Books About Diversity” is the fourth article in the “Raising Readers” series, a Kidskintha initiative meant to encourage parents and children to explore imaginative worlds through the written word.
“Teacher, why does he look weird?”“Why does she wear the same clothes every day?“Can’t he talk?”
As a teacher, I’m used to answering questions from students– but with these, I didn’t know what to do. In each case, a new child had joined our class, and while we wanted to make sure they fit in with the other kids, sometimes differences stood out. These questions, if said loudly by a teenager or adult, would seem rude, or even bullying – but from our students, addressed to me, they were sincere. So what to do?
If I went with my first instinct, to shush the children while looking around anxiously to make sure their classmates were out of hearing, I would be avoiding embarrassment in the immediate situation. But if I shut the conversation down, kids’ curiosity would still continue, though now with a layer of implicit shame settling on both the questioners and their questions’ targets. The children asking would now think that feel like talking about differences was forbidden, and the new children would feel the weight of stares and whispers, wondering why they didn’t belong.
My co-teacher and I talked. We couldn’t have a class discussion about a specific student’s poverty or body, but we knew we wanted to help our students realize that difference – whether physical, socioeconomic, or linguistic– was an important part of our world, and affected each person’s experiences. Difference wasn’t bad – but fearing difference or being insensitive about it would be very harmful. We had to address it. Thankfully, we found that children’s picture books offered a beautiful solution.
Children’s picture books about diversity: Accepting differences, advocating for equity and standing up for others.
Picture books about diversity, drawing children into stories about lives like or unlike to their own, are a wonderful way to help children take others’ perspectives, grow their empathy and emotional intelligence, and better understand others’ lives. They can be used to address a vast variety of issues: linguistic diversity, socioeconomic diversity, racial diversity, neurodiversity, and physical diversity. Reading and discussing these books together provides a safe, comfortable atmosphere to discuss sometimes-tough topics. Both teachers and parents can use these books to spark important conversations with their children – let them ask questions, make connections, and encourage them to think about when they have felt similarly to the characters, and what they could do to be understanding and kind to people who seem different from them.
Let’s explore some and see how! (Note: This is by no means a comprehensive list, as there are so many books I am not aware of yet, but it does provide a helpful starting point! Many of these books have won awards in the U.S.)
Picture books about diversity: socioeconomic differences.
This book follows a boy, Jeremy, who desperately wants a pair of cool-looking shoes that all his schoolmates seem to possess – but his family can’t afford them, especially when they need to buy him a pair of winter boots instead. His classmates (except his friend, Antonio) laugh at him for wearing shoes that look old and babyish, and Jeremy’s frustration grows, until his grandmother takes him to a secondhand store where he finds and joyfully buys a cast-off pair of “those shoes” that cost only a few dollars – but they’re far too small, and he can’t wear them to school. Through Jeremy’s disappointment and anger, though, he notices his friend Antonio also wears shoes even older than Jeremy’s own – broken and taped-together. He feels a spark of generosity. Early the next morning, Jeremy hurries to Antonio’s door, bearing the shoes – then rings the doorbell and runs away, leaving the shoes for his friend. At school, Jeremy has mixed feelings – he is happy for his friend, but still angry about his own circumstance – but later, in the snow, wearing his boots, Antonio leans in and whispers “Thanks.” He knew it was Jeremy who gave him the shoes.
This book always sparks so much discussion amongst our class. Some kids connect with Jeremy’s experience, remembering things their parents couldn’t afford, and how frustrated and disappointed it made them feel.
Some have never had to feel that kind of want in their lives, but the story helps them realize how being in that situation would feel. Some connect with Antonio, remembering when their friends showed them kindness.
All usually empathize with Jeremy, feeling generous impulses towards their friends, even when giving can be hard.
“I wish I could give Jeremy those shoes,” said one of my students, brows furrowed. “I feel frustrated when my mom can’t afford things,” another whispered. “I know he’s happy with his friend ‘cause they can both play even if they don’t have the same shoes,” another student chirped.
Through books like this, even the youngest children can begin to talk about socioeconomic circumstances, that some people have more money and some less, and that even if someone has less, they can be kind, generous, and fun-loving kids just like themselves. Most importantly, it builds empathy, helping kids “walk in each other’s shoes” and understand the feelings of people in situations different from their own.
Other good books addressing socioeconomic differences:
Picture Books: These are helpful for kids at all ages – picture books are not just for little ones! They address complex topics and provide beautiful illustrations that help kids understand and empathize with characters, reading their faces and body language as well as listening to or reading the text.
- My Rows and Piles of Coins by Tololwa M. Mollel –
This beautifully illustrated book addresses a child’s desire to lighten his mother’s load, saving money for a bicycle in order to be able to carry more of their food to sell at the market.
- Maddi’s Fridge by Lois Brandt – Addresses food insecurity and families helping each other (both ways, not just privileged-to-poor – both friends help each other reach goals).
- A Chair for My Mother by Vera Williams – Addresses determination and optimism even in difficult financial situations, like a child having very little after a fire but wanting to save to buy a chair for his mother so she can rest after work.
- Tía Isa Wants a Car by Meg Medina – Similarly to Williams’ book, this book addresses determination when working hard to help a family member gain something that is taken for granted as a basic necessity by others – in this case, a girl does odd jobs around the neighborhood to help her aunt buy a car for their family.
- Yard Sale by Eva Bunting– Addresses financial insecurity and downward class mobility – when a family cannot keep their house, and have to move to a smaller place, the daughter laments the loss of her possessions, especially her bicycle – but her parents help show her that it is their love, not their things, that bind them all together as a family.
- Smoky Night by Eva Bunting – Addresses violence in lower socioeconomic neighborhoods, and how a family can protect themselves while still being open to people different from them, building empathy and coming together in moments of crisis as a true community.
- Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña– Addresses the power of appreciating the non-material wonders of life, and how everyone can help others, no matter their circumstances, as the central child feels frustrated at not having a music player, having to take the bus instead of a car, and walking in the rain – but his grandmother helps him realize the music that is already around him, the excitement of meeting new people and old friends on the bus, and the rainbow above – and both end the book volunteering at a soup kitchen.
Longer books (not picture books):
- Front Desk by Kelly Yang – This book addresses both economic and racial diversity, focusing on a girl, Mia, who has immigrated to the United States from China. Her family lives in economic poverty, working in a hotel for barely-subsistence pay, but she is determined to help her family (which she does through working at the front desk of the hotel, using her math skills and people skills), and others in her community.
As an aspiring author, she wants desperately to win a writing contest where the prize is a hotel to own – but while she waits for the answer, she employs her writing ability to advocate for people in her community with similar circumstances to her own, who are discriminated against because of racial, ethnic, or linguistic identity, while her family secretly houses fellow immigrants who have no other place to go.
Though she faces bullying about her older clothes and lack of money, and microaggressions about her Chinese origin (people assume she does not speak English, and one character says “How do you know how to play piano if you were in China?”), she finds friends who empathize with her, as she does with them, and together they forge plans to help their families “get off the rollercoaster” of the cycle of poverty.
In the end, it is through the strength of collective connection that Mia and her family, as well as her friends, fellow immigrants, and community, are able to advocate for themselves, raise money, and purchase the hotel from its oppressive owner, for them to run together.
This beautiful book shows the power of close family and community ties in the face of economic strife, and how anyone – even and especially children – can be advocates, standing up for others.
This beautiful book, a verse novel (written in poetry), explores another immigration experience, this one historical, of a young girl who immigrates with her family to Texas, fleeing the dangers of war-torn Vietnam. She and her family also experience racism, poverty, and linguistic difference, as well as oppression by her family’s employers, but her close relationship with her family, especially her brothers, and the connections she finds with strangers who become friends, carry her through and help her and her family move from surviving to thriving in their new home.
Addresses overcoming prejudices and activism – shows the life of a girl, Anjali, whose family is involved in Gandhi’s freedom movement, standing up to the British government and reaching out to the Dalit community – but when her mother is arrested, Anjali strives to take up her work and continue her mother’s advocacy for those in lower socioeconomic circumstances. Though she makes some mistakes, Anjali grows to understand more and more the struggle of people in her society, and becomes aware and committed to building a world with justice for all.
Books about linguistic differences:
- No English by Jacqueline Jules: This book explores the budding friendship between two girls who initially cannot understand each other – neither each other’s speech, nor each other’s actions. The book follows the perspective of a young student, Diane, who speaks only English, who is unsettled and annoyed when a new student, Blanca, who speaks Spanish only, joins their class. Diane is jealous that Blanca gets to draw during spelling, while she herself has gotten in trouble for drawing during class.
Their teacher talks to the class, encouraging them to empathize with Blanca’s point of view, asking “Can you imagine what it’s like to be surrounded by people you don’t understand?” and “What can we do to make Blanca feel welcome?”
The class connects to her feelings, and brainstorms ways they can include Blanca, using a greeting in Spanish and learning about her country, Argentina. Diane determines to make friends with Blanca, but at recess, a misunderstanding over sharing a jump rope hurts Blanca’s feelings and disappoints the narrator. After a few days, however, the girls find a book in both Spanish and English, and they teach each other some words in each other’s language.
They draw pictures of each other, learning each other’s names, and draw their families and homes, learning about each other’s lives. Soon, the girls have become good friends, and Blanca teaches Diane and her classmates a Spanish rhyme at recess, as they happily play together.
This book beautifully demonstrates the power of showing empathy and kindness, and working together to resolve misunderstandings and communicate, both with words and without.
Diane learns from her mistakes and grows in perspective-taking as she learns more about Blanca, and Blanca becomes more confident as she sees that others want to be her friend, and shares her knowledge of Spanish with others, proud of her language. No longer do the characters think in terms of deficit, viewing Blanca as simply someone with “No English,” but instead they now view Blanca as a valuable member of their class, someone who both helps them learn and is fun to be with, a friend who belongs. This book can help children see others with differences from them not as strangers, but as potential friends, and make efforts to communicate and include.
Other good books on linguistic differences:
Picture Books: (again, helpful for all ages):
- One Green Apple by Eve Bunting – like No English, this addresses the experience of being in a new school and country, with a different language than others speak – but this time, it’s from the perspective of the student from another country, and her initial loneliness but then sense of belonging as her field trip apple-picking with her classmates reveals that there are so many experiences and feelings that they share.
- Drawn Together by Minh Lê –
Addresses overcoming communication barriers within a family, exploring a relationship between a grandfather and grandson, who initially feel lonely together, as their languages, food, and interests are different – but find a way to communicate through drawing, using pictures to share their adventures, imaginative ideas, and excitement about their new connection.
- Mango, Abuela, and Me by Meg Medina – Like Lê’s book, this addresses linguistic difference between a grandparent and child, who find a slightly different solution, using methods like teaching each other words and phrases as they cook together, sharing photos of their family, and – most uniquely – adopting a parrot who reminds Abuela of her home country and repeats what all members of the family say, helping them all learn each other’s language.
- I’m New Here by Anne Sibley O-Brien-
Addresses the discomfort of several students learning a new language that feels so different from their own. With their home language, they felt comfortable, confident, belonging, and proud, but here they feel shut out and alone – but as other students include them, and they practice their new language, they gain confidence, make friends, and become comfortable participating in their class.
- The Why-Why Girl by Mahasweta Devi- A book by one of the most celebrated Indian authors, Mahasweta Devi, it raises questions about politics, gender and class gently told through the eyes of a tribal girl.
Longer books (not picture books):
Addresses linguistic diversity and bullying, as Ravi, a student who just moved to the U.S. from India, faces frustration as he was a star student back home, but his teachers here do not understand him, and Ravi’s alternate friend-enemy Joe, who is bullied because of his auditory processing difficulties.
Addresses linguistic diversity and prejudice against other cultures, as the imaginative, funny, and kind Omar speaks both Arabic and English fluently, but faces bullying and stereotyping from classmates and neighbors because of his cultural identity. This portrayal of a boy who thinks the best of others despite their prejudice, winning them over through his kind nature, opens many readers’ minds to how kids of different cultures than their own have many of the same experiences, feelings, and love for fun that they do, and their cultures are just as valid and important.
One of the most important things parents can do to prepare their children for the diverse, globalized world of the 21st century is to engage them with books like these – reading to them, reading with them, and initiating conversations about what they notice, question, and learn. Parents – you are your child’s first teachers, and you are the ones who can nourish their social-emotional development, including cultivating empathy for others. Through diverse books, you can help your children grow into kind, aware, and socially conscious people who will shape our future.