10 Steps to Diversify Your Child's Bookshelf

From near and far, we keep getting the same request - where can I find “the list”?  We are thrilled that We Stories has inspired more families to add more books that feature characters of color and address racism to their shelves.  We invite you to join our growing community by signing up for our waitlist (St. Louis only, for now) and to help us respond to the interest of hundreds of families who have reached out to us by supporting us (everyone! everywhere!).  

Though we have curated a set of books for use in our family learning program (and continue to do so), the truth is there is no “list” and anyone can begin this journey with a little bit of direction and motivation.  So, without further ado, here are 10 ways to curate a bookshelf that expands your family’s conversations about racism (and yes! we share specific book recommendations below):

  1. Start small. Every journey begins with a single step but getting started is often the hardest part.  Many of us hope or believe that children do not notice race until the adult world draws it to their attention.  Research has shown the opposite to be true: children form their first conclusions about racial bias in their early years, which is also the time that many families remain silent about these topics or offer abstract responses to kids’ concrete observations of human diversity.  The starter library we provide incoming families is intended to open up a conversation that is new or nascent, offer language for parents unaccustomed to having these conversations at the preschool level, and provide context for children to share their existing observations and questions.  Some of our favorite books that use simple and descriptive language to capture the range of human diversity are: “We’re the Same, We’re Different,” “Shades of People,” and “All the Colors We Are.”  

  2. Be brave.  Racism is a big and complex topic with stark real-life consequences for all of us.  No one deserves a medal (or a cookie) for reading diversely AND at the same time the staying power of racism relies on most of us going about our lives as if it doesn’t affect us.  We cannot be part of the solution until we are brave enough to embrace the realities of racism and our role in it.  Opening yourself up to stories that are unfamiliar to you requires the everyday courage of exploring what we don’t know and finding space to learn and grow.  Fortunately, these same skills come in handy in all facets of parenting.  (Who among us hasn’t had a kid question posed at the most inopportune of times?)  So, let the books you choose open doors to aspects of history you might have missed, such as: “28 Days: Moments in Black History that Changed the World,” “Seeds of Freedom: The Peaceful Integration of Huntsville, Alabama,” and “Ron’s Big Mission.”  Seek out books like “Amazing Grace,” “Something Beautiful,” and “The Other Side” that depict childhood with complexity and explore the realities of unfair treatment based on race.  

  3. Keep going.  The books above can create space for important conversations to emerge, but if you read a book once and return it to the library, it’s unlikely your kids will take much away from it.  And, it’s pretty impossible in just a few sittings to get from noticing difference to meaningful discussions of our country’s history of slavery and segregation, resistance and civil rights activism to exploring current events and how we might show up as a family who values diversity, inclusion and equity.  If the first book you try doesn’t land, try another.  If your kid asks a question for which you don’t have an answer, revisit it later.  We have found that by making it a priority to include diverse titles in our family’s ongoing reading, our conversations have deepened over time and the connections between the books and our real life have grown organically.  When you need inspiration to keep going, check out #1000blackgirlbooks or see item 4.

  4. Together.  So many of the 80 families who participated in our pilot program from November 2015 to February 2016 told us that before participating in We Stories they felt isolated.  Knowing that there are hundreds of other families in our region who wanted to #raisebigheartedkids and contribute to a #newstoryforSTL give us a sense of strength in numbers.  Stay connected with us and hear about the books we are reading by following our Facebook page and signing up for our newsletter.  Consider also forming a community of parents in your area to learn with and from.

  5. Stories matter. The stories we tell and those told about us shape our sense of self, our understandings of our world, and our vision of what’s possible.  Stories draw us closer to other people – parent to child, stranger to friend, neighbor to neighbor.  There’s pretty compelling research that exposing children to as little as six books that depict cross-race friendship encourages cross-group play.  Stories like “Yo! Yes?”; “Lottie Paris and the Best Place”; “Matthew and Tilly”; “How do you wokka-wokka?”; “Jamaica and Brianna”; and “My Friend Jamal” should find a spot on most every bookshelf.

  6. The possibilities are endless.  We believe diverse* books are for everyone.  We want our children to see their place in an increasingly multicultural world, to see all people as potential role models, friends, and loved ones, and we want their bookshelf to reflect this world and these possibilities.  It’s been a joy to watch our children connect to mischievous toddler antics in “Please, Baby Please”; to find their interests mirrored in “Firebird” and “Squeak, Rumble, Whomp! Whomp! Whomp!”; and to explore imaginative frontiers in “Juna’s Jar.”  It’s been great fun to seek out titles that bring a unique cultural perspective to the basic concepts all children seek to master during early childhood, such as “Feast of 10” (a counting book); “Round is the Tortilla” (a shapes book); “Red is the Dragon” (a colors book); and “Whose Toes are Those?” (naming body parts).

  7. Let this be about you as much as it is about your kids.  Kids are such powerful motivators.  Many parents are interested in what we are doing because they see in their kids a possibility of a more hopeful future and they feel a great responsibility to raise them right (whatever that means).  But, it’s important to remember that our kids just arrived to the scene: they didn’t make this mess and they are not uniquely responsible for fixing it.  Our kids always learn more from what we do than what we say, and often we have much to learn from their curiosity and openness to new ideas.  Take time to invest in your own learning, expand your bookshelf (or Netflix queue), your social circle, and your stomping grounds.  

  8. Embrace the both/and. Though discussions about racism often devolve into a good/bad person litmus test (as in, racists are bad, hateful people who have outdated ideas and treat others unfairly); the truth is we live in an unjust society that not one of us created and many wish was different.  There is no clear path to undoing racism, and yet we know our actions matter.  Moreover, we are all both good and flawed; rational and emotional; self-aware and powered by bias and blindspots.  There are times when introducing books and stories that are new to your family will be fun and easy, and others where it feels important, challenging, painful and sad. Cultivate a bookshelf that allows for an exploration of joy and pain, the celebration of differences and depictions of unfair treatment, that tells stories from the past and present.  Try to seek out books that are fun, connective and uplifting as well as ones that make you uncomfortable.  For instance, titles like “Bein’ With You This Way” and “Last Stop on Market Street” use rhythm and vernacular that some of our participating families found off-putting in a first read, but these came to be family favorites over time.  

  9. There is no perfect book, no definite list.  Much of what we do is curate and titrate an ongoing stream of books that expand family conversations.  The books we choose for our family learning program are intended to advance a particular conversation: to start and strengthen discussions about difference and racism among families who are interested in but unaccustomed to having these discussions.  These tend to be families with at least one white parent.  We work from a number of existing book lists compiled by organizations that we deeply respect for their expertise in early childhood development, literacy, and/or multicultural education, including: School Library Journal; Cooperative Children's Book Center; Teaching for Change; and Cane Row.  We also value the insights of Deborah Reese who hosts a blog that looks at the portrayal of American Indians in children’s literature and are always looking for more books and more book lists that depict underrepresented communities (let us know if you have favorite sites we have missed!).

  10. But there are better and worse books.  We look to organizations like #WeNeedDiverseBooks and Teaching Tolerance to advance our own learning, and award programs like the Coretta Scott King Award, the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, the Ezra Jack Keats Book Award, and the Caldecott Medal to find beautiful and compelling titles.  The Anti-Defamation League offers a method for assessing one’s book collection overall, and avoiding titles with stereotypical portrayals.  

*I use the word “diverse” throughout to refer to books that feature characters of color.  I’ve chosen this wording because we see our work as aligned with #WeNeedDiverseBooks, a big and exciting push within the publishing industry “to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people.”  Many have rightly pointed out that describing books that feature characters of color as “diverse” reinforce the idea that white characters are unraced or “normal.”  

written and prepared by Laura Horwitz

About our Family Learning Program:

What we do is pretty simple. We provide families with beautiful, compelling picture books that feature diverse characters and address race and racism. We pair the books with monthly, thematic resources that help parents bring the books to life and advance their own learning. And, we foster a supportive community among the participating families through a closed Facebook group and regular in-person events.

Reading diverse children’s books is a small, everyday act with big ripple effects. We are opening up new conversations with our kids and demonstrating that we value diversity, tolerance, and fairness. We are reflecting on the stories that have shaped our identities, exploring missing chapters of history, forging new friendships and rewriting our notions of community. With 80 local families in our pilot program, 100 that began in April, 100 more starting in May and nearly 200 still waiting to join, we are finding strength in numbers.