Why Diverse Books Matter: Building Awareness Through Books

Take a moment to think about your favorite children’s book growing up. How did you relate to the characters in the book? Did they remind you of yourself in some way? Your experiences? Your surroundings? Your family? Did the main character resemble you in nationality and/or complexion? Or, was the main character an animal?

Statistically speaking, the cast of characters in your favorite book likely consisted of animals or white kids. According to the National Education Association, in 1985, fewer than 1% of children’s books featured Black characters. In 2018, as illustrated by David Huyck and produced by Sarah Park Dahlen using statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, children’s books still were seven times more likely to feature an animal, an inanimate object (e.g., Tow Truck Joe), or a white person than an African or African American. Books featuring Asian, Latinx, and Indigenous characters only comprised 13% of all children’s books.

Those statistics tell us that parents are challenged to find opportunities to expose their young children to diverse stories that reflect different perspectives and experiences. 2020 statistics have improved a little, although the pandemic may have had an impact on new product offerings. Regardless, there’s still much work to be done.

Why diverse books matter

Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, professor emerita at The Ohio State University, wrote an important essay, “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors,” that perfectly makes the case for reading diverse books to your child. Here are the highlights as outlined by Dr. Tracey Flores and Dr. Sandra Osoria with Colorin Colorado.

Mirror books have characters and/or settings that reflect various aspects of a child’s identity, e.g., their race, gender, ethnicity, religion, socio-economic status, and family. When children don’t see themselves in the books read to them or that they themselves read, or when books convey negative stereotypes or inaccuracies about their communities, children may think that their stories or experiences don’t matter.

Window books allow children to see aspects of the world and of other people’s lives that are quite different from their own. By introducing children to these new experiences and perspectives, children learn that their view isn’t the only view on things.

Reading window and mirror books to your child, starting from birth, helps promote empathy and begins teaching acceptance. Such books build awareness of the social practices and values of other cultures, thus helping to lead your child to a better understanding of the multicultural world beyond his or her own experiences.

Ultimately, reading window and mirror books opens doorways—sliding glass doors—through which your child can learn, can grow, and ultimately can take thoughtful action in the real world, informed by the diverse stories these books present.

Resources for diverse books

Just as it’s never too early to begin reading to your child, it’s never too soon (or too late) to introduce books with diverse main characters. These links will help get you started.