The importance of Diversity in Children's Literature

Written by Kelly Parkhouse
English Teacher at Modelex, Monaco.
Reading is one of the most important skills a young person can learn as it opens up a new world, giving children the opportunity to explore new ideas, visit new places, meet new characters and develop curiosity and respect for people different from themselves. High-quality literature plays a key role in this, so it is essential that children are exposed to a wide range of literature from a wide range of authors.

When I think back to books that I read and enjoyed as a child, I remember that they made me feel seen and important – I was able to relate in many ways to all the characters and authors I came across because they looked like me, acted like me and were from communities similar to the ones that I was from. Even as a teenager, I just assumed that everyone felt this way. It was only when I became an educator, teaching children from all different walks of lives and backgrounds did I realize that the privilege I had and continue to have of identifying with characters, is, in fact a privilege, and unfortunately doesn't extend to everyone. Despite our wonderfully diverse world, children's literature still does not reflect this.

What is diversity and why is it important to promote this in an educational setting?
Diversity refers to the range of identities that exist in a group of people. Every single day, we encounter people who have different identities to us. Common identity categories can relate to gender, religion, socio-economic status, family structure, sexual orientation, ethnicity, race, culture, and disability (note that the term disability presented here is thought of as created by barriers in the environment due to lack of equal access and other forms of marginalization, as opposed to 'lacking ability'). Fostering and developing sensitivity to the needs of people in various identity categories is crucial to ensure safe, inclusive and equitable environments for all. The concept of diversity in education gives children the opportunity to recognise, respect and celebrate similarities and differences, to move beyond simple tolerance to embracing the rich dimensions contained within each individual. When this happens, there will only be positive outcomes for all, including increased compassion and understanding, better listening skills, a confidence to explore and ask questions, tools to be an upstander and not a bystander and how to support a just and fair world for all.

Children should be able to see themselves and those around them reflected in every part of school life. The images we display in the classroom, the books we choose to put on our shelves, the scientists we learn about, the topics we study, the cultures we explore and the languages we learn, can all have a significant impact on a child and it's crucial that this impact is a positive one and not a negative one.

Why is it so important for literature to be diverse?
Children rely so much on literature to shape the way they perceive the world. When we fill the shelves of classrooms, bookstores and libraries with books about the same kinds of people, we risk alienating those who don't fit that mold, leaving them feeling invisible, inferior and like they don't belong here. By celebrating diversity of all forms through literature, we are not only uplifting all children, but we also introduce children to the world that exists outside of their family, friends and classroom circles. This will not only increase a young person's curiosity, respect and excitement towards those who might be viewed as different from themselves, but it will also build empathy and understanding, enabling children to include and be included and to reduce fear or anxiety of 'the other'.

Whose job is it to ensure children have access to diverse literature?
It's actually all of our jobs to ensure children have access to diverse literature – families, bookshops, teachers, schools, colleges, universities, publishers, educational centres… we all have a duty towards children to ensure that they feel like they belong and matter.

My bookshelf isn't diverse at all – where do I start?
A truly diverse bookshelf should be a window to the world around us – so when we say 'diverse literature' we are talking about books that depict characters of different ages, genders, ethnicities, abilities and sexual orientation, books that show people practicing different religions, speaking different languages, coming from varied socio-economic circumstances or countries, or having a variety of family structures.

The first step is to give your bookshelf a 'self-audit'. This means sorting your books into different content piles, such as animal characters, human characters and non-fiction. Next, go through the human character pile and try to separate them again based on if you think the characters are different from your child's own identities. A good way to do this is to think of books as mirrors and windows. Does the book act as a mirror for your child? Or does the book act as a window into a different person's life? For example, if your child is able to walk without support, do you have any books that feature children who use wheelchairs? It is important to have a selection of books that are both windows and mirrors. Finally, go to a bookshop with your child or browse online and choose some books together that look interesting, keeping the window and mirror analogy in mind. Alternatively, sign up to a book subscription and receive a diverse book each month in the post.
THE IMPORTANCE OF DIVERSITY IN CHILDREN'S LITERATURE

Reading is one of the most important skills a young person can learn as it opens up a new world, giving children the opportunity to explore new ideas, visit new places, meet new characters and develop curiosity and respect for people different from themselves. High-quality literature plays a key role in this, so it is essential that children are exposed to a wide range of literature from a wide range of authors.

When I think back to books that I read and enjoyed as a child, I remember that they made me feel seen and important – I was able to relate in many ways to all the characters and authors I came across because they looked like me, acted like me and were from communities similar to the ones that I was from. Even as a teenager, I just assumed that everyone felt this way. It was only when I became an educator, teaching children from all different walks of lives and backgrounds did I realize that the privilege I had and continue to have of identifying with characters, is, in fact a privilege, and unfortunately doesn't extend to everyone. Despite our wonderfully diverse world, children's literature still does not reflect this.

What is diversity and why is it important to promote this in an educational setting?

Diversity refers to the range of identities that exist in a group of people. Every single day, we encounter people who have different identities to us. Common identity categories can relate to gender, religion, socio-economic status, family structure, sexual orientation, ethnicity, race, culture, and disability (note that the term disability presented here is thought of as created by barriers in the environment due to lack of equal access and other forms of marginalization, as opposed to 'lacking ability'). Fostering and developing sensitivity to the needs of people in various identity categories is crucial to ensure safe, inclusive and equitable environments for all. The concept of diversity in education gives children the opportunity to recognise, respect and celebrate similarities and differences, to move beyond simple tolerance to embracing the rich dimensions contained within each individual. When this happens, there will only be positive outcomes for all, including increased compassion and understanding, better listening skills, a confidence to explore and ask questions, tools to be an upstander and not a bystander and how to support a just and fair world for all.

Children should be able to see themselves and those around them reflected in every part of school life. The images we display in the classroom, the books we choose to put on our shelves, the scientists we learn about, the topics we study, the cultures we explore and the languages we learn, can all have a significant impact on a child and it's crucial that this impact is a positive one and not a negative one.

Why is it so important for children's literature to be diverse?

Children rely so much on literature to shape the way they perceive the world. When we fill the shelves of classrooms, bookstores and libraries with books about the same kinds of people, we risk alienating those who don't fit that mold, leaving them feeling invisible, inferior and like they don't belong here. By celebrating diversity of all forms through literature, we are not only uplifting all children, but we also introduce children to the world that exists outside of their family, friends and classroom circles. This will not only increase a young person's curiosity, respect and excitement towards those who might be viewed as different from themselves, but it will also build empathy and understanding, enabling children to include and be included and to reduce fear or anxiety of 'the other'.

Whose job is it to ensure children have access to diverse literature?

It's actually all of our jobs to ensure children have access to diverse literature – families, bookshops, teachers, schools, colleges, universities, publishers, educational centres… we all have a duty towards children to ensure that they feel like they belong and matter.

My bookshelf isn't diverse at all – where do I start?

A truly diverse bookshelf should be a window to the world around us – so when we say 'diverse literature' we are talking about books that depict characters of different ages, genders, ethnicities, abilities and sexual orientation, books that show people practicing different religions, speaking different languages, coming from varied socio-economic circumstances or countries, or having a variety of family structures.

The first step is to give your bookshelf a 'self-audit'. This means sorting your books into different content piles, such as animal characters, human characters and non-fiction. Next, go through the human character pile and try to separate them again based on if you think the characters are different from your child's own identities. A good way to do this is to think of books as mirrors and windows. Does the book act as a mirror for your child? Or does the book act as a window into a different person's life? For example, if your child is able to walk without support, do you have any books that feature children who use wheelchairs? It is important to have a selection of books that are both windows and mirrors. Finally, go to a bookshop with your child or browse online and choose some books together that look interesting, keeping the window and mirror analogy in mind. Alternatively, sign up to a book subscription and receive a diverse book each month in the post.
Here are my top 6 chapter book recommendations:
My top 6 picture book recommendations:
Further Reading
There are lots of great subscription sites and reading recommendations out there, including the following:

https://equalopportunitybookbox.com/

https://www.ourshelves.com/

https://diversebooks.org/resources/

Happy reading!
Further reading
There are lots of great subscription sites and reading recommendations out there, including the following:

https://equalopportunitybookbox.com/


https://www.ourshelves.com/

https://diversebooks.org/resources/

Happy reading!
ALL MODELEX BLOG POSTS