Diversity in children’s literature has always held a strong place in my heart and is something that I promote at every possibility. When Charlottesville happened, I couldn’t wrap my head around how our country had seemingly traveled backwards in time. I went back to check out books that focused on diversity, that focused on the experiences of racism that African-Americans have faced in this country, I took comfort in how far children’s books have come to show inclusion instead of exclusion. It wasn’t enough, but it was a start.
At the most basic level, all of this is about inclusion. Rather than surrounding yourself with only people that look and act like you do, you can enjoy the company of those who are different. My favorite book that shows this is the amazing Can I Join Your Club? by John Kelly. I wrote a complete post on this book back in January, but the story is about a duck who wants to join a club (feels like when they advertise for clubs on a college campus). All the clubs have their tables out, but each time Duck goes to a different table, he is turned away because they only want people who look and act exactly like they do. He finally decides to start his own club and then welcomes in everyone. Such a powerful message for even the youngest readers.
This! This Book! Let’s Talk About Race, by Julius Lester, needs to be read to every child everywhere, but especially, read this book to children who perhaps live in an area that is homogeneous. Lester captures race so perfectly. We are all the same under our skin. We all think that we are better than someone else for some reason – intelligence, money, better dressed, smarter, the list goes on and on. But our stories all start the same – “I was born on….” Race is a part of who were are just as religion, nationality, and culture are part of who we are. The story of who you are is special and important and made up of so many things. Race is important, but there is so much more to each of us. This book is simply marvelous.
Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah understands that often children are able to see past color of skin, but struggle more with little things, like eating different foods. In her book, The Sandwich Swap, she confronts how the thought that what someone else is eating is strange, different, or just plain gross, can build negative emotions. I wrote a full review of the book last year, but what resonates is the message that Queen Rania wrote in the back of the book – “It’s easy to jump to conclusions when we come across something new or foreign or strange. But if we take the time to get to know each other, stand in each other’s shoes, and listen to a different point of view, we learn something wonderful – about someone else and about ourselves.”
Sometimes it is simply stories that get tough points across best. Children often don’t see other children as black, white, Asian, Latino, or anything else, they see them as children. They see them as potential playmates. This point is emphasized in Jacqueline Woodson’s The Other Side. A literal fence divides the white side of town from the black. Clover, a young African-American girl, is told never to cross the fence. But when a little white girl appears and seems to just want a friend, Clover questions the divide that has always been in front of her. A very powerful story about how prejudices and separation are often passed down through generations.
We all know the I Have a Dream speech that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke in 1963. Amazingly, Kadir Nelson took the text from that speech and put it into a book with paintings that he made to go along with the speech. The speech was revolutionary in 1963 and still amazingly powerful today. Seeing it with these beautiful pictures makes it resonate that much more. We are still working for true freedom in this great nation, be we are hopefully moving in the right direction.
Freedom Summer is an exceptionally powerful book about how difficult it was to be African-American in the South even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The book is a work of fiction, but a moving authors note before the story tells of how the story came to be. The story imagines two young boys who are best friends even though one happens to be black and one happens to be white. The powerful part comes when the boys think that they will finally be able to swim together in the town pool only to discover that the town would rather close the pool completely than allow blacks and whites to swim in the same pool. A very moving story that shows how deeply rooted prejudices are.
For older kids, they can learn even more from powerful books with diverse messages. My older daughter just recently read Stella by Starlight, by Sharon M. Draper. I realize now that I never wrote a book review on that when I read it in 2015 moved me deeply. This book is about a young girl in the South in 1932. Her community is racially divided and the KKK has a very strong presence. The fact that white doctors would not treat African-American patients resonated with my daughter. It seemed so odd that a profession that was meant to heal people could have people in it who were cruel enough to disregard human life. This book also looks at voting rights and how it takes a group of people standing together, peacefully, to make a difference.
The book It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel takes a look at the experience of Iranian immigrants in the 1970s that echos a number of similar issues faced by Muslims today. Zomorod Yousefzadeh is an 11 year old girl who just wants to fit in in Newport Beach, CA. Her family started to get comfortable until the Iranian Revolution and the subsequent hostage situation. This book really looks at the true to life notions of trying to fit in when your customs and background are different from those around you. Readers can get a better appreciation for those around them from this outstanding book.
The recently published Amina’s Voice shares a lot of similarities with It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel, except that it is set in the present day. Amina is a Pakistani-American Muslim girl who struggles to stay true to her family’s vibrant culture while simultaneously blending in at school. Amina’s Voice deals with Islamophobia but in a way that 12 year olds can comprehend. The reality is that many live in this country but are always reminded in little ways that they remain the “other.”
As Mahatma Ghandi said, “No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive.” If we want to continue to exist and thrive, we must look at those around us and see everyone as humans rather than only looking at their differences.
With all that said, I am honored to once again be a part of Multicultural Children’s Book Day. The event takes place on January 27th, but the pages are all up for people to start requesting books. If you are a teacher and would like to take part in the Multicultural Children’s Book Day Classroom Reading Project, you can sign up using this link. If you are willing to share a review of a book on pretty much any social media platform, you can sign up here. You don’t need to write a blog, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, You Tube, anything works.