Reading to the Zoo: Authentic Diversity in Children’s Books

I came across the question the other day: Do diverse animals in children’s books help kids appreciate diversity?

It’s a fair question, considering that it seems like there are more kids books with animal characters than human ones. And, it would be nice to think that the parade of animal pals in the Llama, Llama books or on Daniel Tiger are teaching the value of diversity. But, the answer isn’t that simple.

While a motley crew of animals may be a good read, it’s important for kids to see diverse human characters. The point isn’t for kids to see lots of different faces, but for them to see faces and situations that mirror their own lives or make them ask questions about what other people are like. (And, kids figure out pretty quickly that animated cats and owls don’t really play together in real life, just like they don’t talk or go to the doctor.)

Also, as most of the books with animals for characters appeal to younger readers, it’s important that we don’t rely on animals for diversity. As Teaching Tolerance points out, kids between the ages of three and five are forming their ideas about gender roles, while kids in early elementary school (grades K-2) are forming their identities and defining what’s similar and different in the people around them. They need books to help them define what’s normal, and reading about all the ways animals can be friends isn’t enough.

Toddler Time: You Know You’re Reading with a Toddler When…

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It’s happened—my baby has become a toddler. And, despite my desire to sit and read stacks of books, the way we used to before she was mobile, our reading has changed.

You know you’re reading with a toddler when:

“No” Comes into Play

Before toddlerhood, she accepted most books that were put in front of her (to be fair, she’s always had a few titles that she refused to read). Now, many of the books that I choose are met with a vigorous shaking NO of her head.

It’s Time to Play Favorites

No longer do I get to choose what to read, now my daughter has the books that she wants to hear, and that’s it. We’re starting to diverge on our favorites. Enter the “If I have to read If You’re Happy and You Know It one more time…” phase.

No More Captive Audience

My daughter is also no longer a captive audience. She’s figured out how to squirm off of a lap or the couch, so if she’s not 100% interested in what The Little Blue Truck is doing in the city, she’s off to the next big thing.

Time to Take Initiative

On the other hand, she’s still seeking books out on her own and spends time reading them—flipping through the pages, looking at pictures, and making little motions to go along with some of them. All this can only mean one thing—she’s forming her identity as a reader.

(Photo from http://www.vegbooks.org)

In January, I made my New Year’s Resolution to build a library with diverse board books. Here are some of the books that I’ve added to our library:

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I Like Myself by Karen Beaumont, the fun in this book is in the message as well as in the little girl whose features and coloring are not clearly defined.

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A You’re Adorable by Martha Alexander, the illustrations in this book do contain kids from multiple backgrounds.

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Baby Faces by DK Publishing, true to the title, this book features a range of baby faces.

Maybe because I’m specifically looking for African American diversity, those texts seem easiest to find. Some other books that feature African American diversity:

Peek-a-boo Morning by Rachel Isadora

Who’s Toes are Those? By Jabari Asim

Ten, Nine, Eight by Molly Bang

One, Two, Three, Crawl! By Carol Thompson

What board books have you found that have a range of diverse images?