Childrens Books: Why Kids Need Diverse Books

Childrens Books

Childrens Books

Each year, the Cooperative Childrens Book Center studies how many childrens books were published in that year by or about African Americans, American Indians, Latinos and Asians. And, each year, the statistics are rather sobering. As you have probably already heard by this point, only 93 out of 3,200 childrens titles published in 2013 were about Africans and African Americans. I encourage you to refer to the study (  itself, because the historical tables illustrate quite well that this trend is not improving. In fact, the 2013 numbers were even worse than the already meager numbers of years past.

The good news is that this year the problem is getting lots of media attention. In April, a group of activists and writers started the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement to raise awareness about the lack of diversity in childrens books.

The CCBC’s study also prompted Christopher Myers to write “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature,” a moving editorial in the New York Times about the toll this absence of black faces in literature takes on black children. Myers explains that, not only are black kids unable to find themselves in the characters they read about, but they are left without a roadmap of where they might go in life, what they might dream about.

I would extend Myer’s article a bit further to say that the pale skin of children’s literature is also damaging to white children. One of the most beautiful gifts that literature bestows is to allow us to step into the shoes of someone else, to attain a deeper understanding of the human experience. Children should be exposed to perspectives that are not exactly like their own, not only because this exposure enriches their own minds and understanding, but, more importantly, because it will make them better citizens of the world. In exposing children to challenges and issues they might not have confronted themselves or might not have even been conscious of, we help them build empathy, learn to act without and against prejudice, develop a strong sense of the dignity of each and every individual, and improve their moral reasoning skills.

When I read Myers’s editorial, I swallowed real hard. Shame spread through me. Between them, my three white kids have read hundreds of books over the last year. I spend hours in bookstores and libraries and reading reviews to supply them with the most captivating books I can find. I care very deeply about what they read. And, yet, as I sweep through those hundreds of titles, I find precious few characters and authors of color. My own kids’ bookshelves reflect the very curse that Myers bemoans.

As my ten-year-old son and I rifled through our shelves, searching for race, one encouraging trend shone through. His very favorite books over the last year have been exactly those that are under-represented on his shelf: the books with characters of color. I cannot help but wonder if the fact that these books were more than just good stories, but also included the added dimension of difference, of otherness, of cultures that were new to him, was what made them more engaging and dynamic.

My son regularly ranks the books he reads and below you will find what made it into his top eight this year – all middle grade novels. I encourage you to load up on these titles, gift them, review them on Amazon, ask your local librarian to stock them. Let’s show the publishing world that there is demand for excellent works of literature by and about people of color.

1.     Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin, has become my son’s gold standard. He compares every other novel to it. I’ve often heard him say, “X book was good, but nowhere in the same league as Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.”

It was not love at first sight. My son did, in fact, judge the book by its cover and refused to start it. Perhaps he was put off by the girl wearing pink on the cover, perhaps he didn’t feel a connection with the cover artist’s rendering of her Asian face, perhaps the book simply looked too long. But I started reading it aloud one night, and lo and behold the next day he picked it up on his own. He was hooked. I mention this because sometimes it will take a bit of cajoling to get your kid to open a book with someone on the cover who does not remind him of himself. Kids are, after all, rather narcissistic. So sell it a little!

The book’s main character, Min, grows up in a very poor home, and my son was outraged and troubled by the poverty of her rice-farming family. Min’s home is, however, rich with story. Every night, her father tells tales that my son found mesmerizing. When her father spins a yarn about the “Old Man on the Moon” who can change people’s fortunes, Min sets off on a journey to find this man so that he might improve her family’s lot in life. The stories that Grace Lin beautifully weaves in and out of Min’s journey are based on Chinese folktales. Of course, Min learns many things along the way, most importantly that generosity offers greater rewards than selfishness.

My son would say that his favorite things about the book were the brave Min, the magical adventures and the dragon. While he would never express it this way, I think what actually transfixed him to this book was Grace Lin’s remarkable use of language, which was certainly influenced by the sounds and structures of the Asian folk stories she drew upon.

2.     Vanished, by Sheela Chari, was a book my son could not put down. I can understand why he loved this page-turner. It is chock full of vivid characters who aren’t always what they first seem. It was easy to relate to the captivating main character, Neela. She is a sixth-grader of Indian descent living in Massachusetts who dreams of becoming a veena virtuoso on the antique veena that her grandmother recently handed down to her. A veena is a traditional Indian string instrument that your child will learn loads about in the book. When the veena disappears, Neela is thrust into a complex, suspenseful mystery to retrieve the family heirloom, a mystery that can only be resolved by a trip to India.

The book gracefully (and without heavy hand) touches upon what it is like to be Indian in an American school. It incorporates many elements of Indian culture and tradition. But it also raises themes that are universal – honesty versus deceit, rivalry between friends and siblings, the sources of artistic talent and how to achieve greatness. The novel makes excellent use of humor and dialogue. In the end, Neela must make an important moral decision about her grandmother’s veena that will surely cause your child to grapple with what is right and wrong.

3.     Game World, by Wall Street Journal editor C.J. Farley, is the inventive tale of a sixth-grade boy who enters the real-life version of his favorite video game, Xamaica, and sets out on a dangerous quest to find his sister who has disappeared into the game. The Xamaica setting is loosely based on Jamaica, the author’s birthplace. Reminiscent of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, many of the characters and stories told in the book are derived from actual Caribbean history and myth. But Game World does not wear this history on its sleeve. I believe children see through books that are overly didactic, and instinctively turn away.

Instead, my son was drawn deeper into the fantasy world of Xamaica with each passing chapter. What modern child hasn’t fantasized about stepping inside a video game? And this one offers a particularly lush world – with enormous spider webs, evil hummingbird soldiers, a female pirate, creatures that turn into vegetation, tattoos that become video screens. Farley’s lush writing style matches his oversized landscape perfectly. His book will expose your child to creative turns of phrase and unusual metaphors. My son’s favorite character was the comic, story-telling spider, Nestuh, who can’t spin a decent web to save his life, but who offers many sage lessons to make a kid stop and think. “‘The world always shifty-shifty,’ Nestuh shrugged. ‘Making sure you’re in the right is hard as fighting for it. Truth.’”

4.     Rick Riordan doesn’t need any help marketing his best-selling Percy Jackson books. But I thought I would nonetheless point out that Riordan introduced an African American character into his mainstream series in 2011. Indeed, one of the three narrators in The Son of Neptune is a black character named Hazel. Hazel also plays a significant role in subsequent books, The Mark of Athena and The House of Hades. Like many characters in the Percy Jackson books, she is a half-blood – half-human and half-descendent from a god. She is compelling because she is complex: on the one hand she can be quite funny, but, on the other, her difficult past has left her with an abiding sadness. Riordan does not dwell on her race in his novels, which I think is a huge positive. It would be terrible if every time a black character appeared in a book, that book was about race.

5.     My son’s teacher began reading The Watsons Go To Birmingham – 1963 to his class the week of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. It is about a black family that travels from Michigan to Alabama to visit their grandmother. Unfortunately, soon after they arrive, their grandmother’s historic church is blown up.

My son simply adored this book, because it managed to be extremely funny despite its serious topic. Humor is such an important feature in middle grade literature, and this book nails it. More importantly, my son related to the characters, empathizing with them and recognizing himself in them, despite their differences in skin color. Its author, Christopher Paul Curtis, also wrote Bud, Not Buddy, which won a Newbery, and would be another great addition to your shopping list.

In his NYT article, Myers defines the apartheid of literature as a phenomenon “in which characters of color are limited to the townships of occasional historical books that concern themselves with the legacies of civil rights and slavery but are never given a pass card to traverse the lands of adventure, curiosity, imagination or personal growth.” While The Watsons Go To Birmingham certainly places itself squarely in the category of a civil rights book, it is, at its heart, a great story about personal growth.

All the writers on my son’s list have created characters of color that not only traverse, but soar, into “the lands of adventure and curiosity.” It is because these books are full-bodied tales with complex characters and intriguing adventure plots that they landed on his favorites list – a list rounded out by such greats as The Hobbit, The One and Only Ivan and Flora & Ulysses (the latter two are Newbery Medalists).


Myers writes that “The Market,” is often blamed for the dearth of children’s books about black people; publishers claim these books don’t sell. Regardless of whether this amorphous excuse is true or not, we can certainly do something to change that perception. After all, we are the market – you, me, parents, teachers, Kindle-users, Amazon cart-holders, MeeGenius subscribers. If we make a point of supporting works like Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and Game World, perhaps our kids can look forward to a future without literary apartheid.

The next books I have bought for my kids are The Dreamer and Esperanza Rising, both by Pam Munoz Ryan, as well as Gary Soto’s poems, A Fire in My Hands. Summer reading is right around the corner. What titles will you bring home for your kids?


I’m sure I haven’t come close to satisfying your appetite for good books by or about people of color. For more information, please visit: The Children’s Book Council. You will also find helpful compilations on Goodreads (such as this list of books with Hispanic characters) and on local library websites (for example, this great list from the Ann Arbor District Library and this one from the New York Public Library).

And if you are looking for picture books for the younger set, might I suggest:

Yo! Yes! By Chris Raschka

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats

The Little Piano Girl by Ann Ingalls & Maryann Macdonald

Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine

Corduroy by Don Freeman

Grandfather and I by Helen Buckley

Soccer Star by Mina Javaherbin

Too Many Tamales by Gary Soto

How the Stars Fell into the Sky: A Navajo Legend by Jerrie Oughton

The works of Joseph Bruchac (such as The Story of the Milky Way)

Grace Lin’s picture books (such as Thanking the Moon)

The Little Red Fish by Tae-Eun Yoo (one of my personal favorites)

Yoko (and other books in the series) by Max & Ruby author Rosemary Wells

Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth by Emily Haynes




  1. Great beat ! I would like to apprentice while you amend your website, how could i subscribe for a blog web site? The account helped me a acceptable deal. I had been tiny bit acquainted of this your broadcast provided bright clear idea

  2. I’m really enjoying the design and layout of your website. It’s a very easy on the eyes which makes it much more enjoyable for me to come here and visit more often. Did you hire out a developer to create your theme? Fantastic work!

  3. I have been gone for a while, but now I remember why I used to love this site. Thank you, I’ll try and check back more often. How frequently do you update your web site?

  4. Thanks for your marvelous posting! I seriously enjoyed reading it, you might be a great author.I will be sure to bookmark your blog and may come back sometime soon. I want to encourage you to definitely continue your great posts, have a nice holiday weekend!

  5. 314466 252616When I originally commented I clicked the -Notify me when new feedback are added- checkbox and now every time a remark is added I get four emails with the same comment. Is there any approach youll be able to remove me from that service? Thanks! 988352

  6. Thanks for your write-up on this blog site. From my own personal experience, occasionally softening upward a photograph may well provide the digital photographer with a little an artistic flare. Oftentimes however, the soft clouds isn’t precisely what you had under consideration and can often times spoil an otherwise good photo, especially if you thinking about enlarging them.

  7. One thing is that when you are searching for a student loan you may find that you will want a cosigner. There are many situations where this is correct because you might find that you do not use a past credit score so the financial institution will require that you’ve got someone cosign the financing for you. Great post.

  8. 629476 838286Its perfect time to make some plans for the future and its time to be happy. Ive read this post and if I could I wish to suggest you some interesting items or suggestions. Possibly you could write next articles referring to this write-up. I want to read even far more things about it! 127720

  9. Today, with all the fast life-style that everyone is having, credit cards have a huge demand in the economy. Persons from every discipline are using the credit card and people who are not using the card have made arrangements to apply for just one. Thanks for discussing your ideas in credit cards.

  10. Hello would you mind letting me know which web host you’re utilizing? I’ve loaded your blog in 3 completely different internet browsers and I must say this blog loads a lot faster then most. Can you recommend a good internet hosting provider at a honest price? Thanks a lot, I appreciate it!

  11. Excellent blog right here! Also your site so much up very fast! What web host are you the use of? Can I am getting your associate link in your host? I want my website loaded up as fast as yours lol

  12. I like what you guys are up also. Such clever work and reporting! Carry on the excellent works guys I’ve incorporated you guys to my blogroll. I think it will improve the value of my site :)

  13. I have really learned new things through the blog post. One other thing I have observed is that in most cases, FSBO sellers may reject an individual. Remember, they will prefer never to use your providers. But if anyone maintain a stable, professional connection, offering guide and staying in contact for about four to five weeks, you will usually have the ability to win an interview. From there, a house listing follows. Thanks a lot

  14. I’ve been exploring for a little bit for any high quality articles or blog posts on this kind of area . Exploring in Yahoo I at last stumbled upon this site. Reading this info So i’m happy to convey that I’ve an incredibly good uncanny feeling I discovered exactly what I needed. I most certainly will make certain to don’t forget this web site and give it a glance regularly.

  15. Hey There. I found your weblog the use of msn. This is a really smartly written article. I’ll make sure to bookmark it and come back to read extra of your useful information. Thank you for the post. I’ll certainly comeback.

  16. I absolutely love your blog and find most of your post’s to be just what I’m looking for. Would you offer guest writers to write content for you? I wouldn’t mind creating a post or elaborating on some of the subjects you write about here. Again, awesome website!

  17. I not to mention my guys came checking out the excellent advice found on your web site then before long I got a terrible suspicion I had not expressed respect to you for those secrets. Those men are already absolutely joyful to read through all of them and have simply been taking pleasure in them. Appreciate your getting quite helpful and then for pick out this sort of great topics millions of individuals are really wanting to understand about. My personal honest apologies for not expressing appreciation to you sooner.

  18. You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this topic to be really something which I think I would never understand. It seems too complex and extremely broad for me. I am looking forward for your next post, I’ll try to get the hang of it!

  19. Another thing I have noticed is that often for many people, poor credit is the response to circumstances further than their control. One example is they may have been saddled by having an illness and because of this they have high bills going to collections. It may be due to a job loss or perhaps the inability to go to work. Sometimes divorce process can really send the budget in the wrong direction. Thanks for sharing your notions on this web site.

  20. I blog quite often and I genuinely appreciate your content. Your article has truly peaked my interest. I am going to book mark your blog and keep checking for new details about once per week. I subscribed to your Feed too.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here