There is a really great movement in the librarian world happening right now calling on publishers to publish more diverse books, basically meaning we want more books whose main characters aren’t always white. We want books that better represent the communities that we serve every day. It’s a movement that’s been picking up steam in the last couple of years and hopefully will continue to do so. There is a strong need for children and adults to “see” themselves in the books they are reading. It’s important for teens and early chapter books as well, but especially important for children’s picture books since they are showing you that the child/all characters are white in the illustrations in the book. Granted, a lot of children’s book authors bypass this entire topic by having the story told by or featuring animals like Clifford the Big Red Dog, Arthur the Aardvark, or Peppa Pig. But, for those who choose to use humans, many librarians are hoping for a shift toward a selection of books whose characters better represent our country’s diversity.
Which brings me to another recommendation for a children’s book: “Last Stop on Market Street” by Matt De La Peña and Christian Robinson is a gem of a children’s book. I highly recommend it. It features a grandmother and grandson relationship (which is wonderful for my particular community where many grandparents are the legal guardians of their grandkids) and the family is black. While the majority of my community members are of Hispanic descent, not black, it’s still a nice change from having everyone be white all the time in all the books the kids have access to in the library. Back to the story line: Every Sunday, Grandma and her grandson leave church and take the bus to the soup kitchen across town where they volunteer. The grandson is tired of taking the bus and wants them to get a car and buy new gadgets and wants to live in a nicer place and Grandma is such a beautiful character and the descriptions of the interactions she and her grandson have are so beautifully written. You can hear her laugh, you can hear the wisdom come through the dialogue. It’s just so great. She shows her grandson all the beauty that surrounds him. It’s a great inter-generational story as well as being classified as a “diverse” book. I particularly liked it and loved reading it to my storytimers because of all the ways it connects to many of their everyday lives:
A) The bus is a major mode of transportation in my community.
B) the aforementioned reality of grandparents being a huge part of the kids’ lives, and sometimes the main adult role models for kids in my community.
C) The book doesn’t only feature a black family, but the characters the family meets and interacts with on the bus are also wonderfully diverse. There’s the first tattooed man I’ve ever seen in a children’s book, for instance! And my community is chock-full of tattooed folks, so the kids are well-acquainted with seeing people inked up. The soup kitchen illustrations include homeless people, the streets include graffiti, etc. It’s a book based more in the reality of my community than many of the books that are published in picture book format.
Having characters in their book look more like the people they see each day is so wonderful. The kids were enthralled by the book. The other two books I read for storytime were a bit of a dud, and I was worried about this one because I was reading it last and I thought maybe their attention spans would be gone, but they were absolutely focused on the pictures and the story. It really connected, and I was soooo glad!
Here is a link to the campaign website for the We Need Diverse Books movement. http://weneeddiversebooks.org/ It’s not just librarians, there are teachers and parents and social workers and all sorts of people involved, but the librarians are loud and proud and since that’s my little corner of the world, that’s sort of who I associate this movement with. It’s a fantastic movement and long overdue. Having books that showcase aspects of all the different lives that humans experience, whether living with a disability, being part of a mixed-race family, being part of an LGBT family, having picture books translated into new languages and shared across the globe for all kids to experience…it’s all so important and so needed. Children are able to learn and grow and understand so much more than they are often given credit for and I think sometimes people feel like “children don’t see race”. This isn’t true. Children see it and of course they know when the characters in their books never ever look like them or like their family. And it’s not much to ask to want publishers to publish books from authors who write from diverse perspectives. It’s not asking them to STOP publishing authors who focus on traditional or white families; it’s just asking that the publishing industry’s scope for children’s materials be widened to allow for more stories to be told and shared, because the diversity and wider scope of content and viewpoints benefit us all.