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.

Addressing the Single Story

In this TED Talk, novelist Chimanda Adichie explains the idea of a single story, or what happens when we don’t have a balanced, diverse understanding of a people. Adichie’s own experience, growing up in Nigeria, but only reading stories that were written by British authors, showed her how “how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story.” As she grew up, Adichie saw how she became the representation of others’ single stories (for example, about Africa) and how she saw others as single stories (as in a trip to Mexico).

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Single stories, says Adichie, are created when one representation of a people is told again and again, until this becomes a reality. “Single stories,” Adichie says in her talk, “create stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.”

Diverse literature is part of the antidote. Diverse literature opens up single stories and makes them more complex. They raise questions about the nuances of a group while broadening and widening our understanding of a group. They take away the power that a single story has to shape our feelings towards a group.

Reflecting on this talk, I can see how single stories could be perpetuated (unknowingly) in classrooms. One character is presented or one story becomes the narrative for how a people “is.” Or, stereotypes are challenged in a basic way, with the dismissal of the stereotype, rather than a thorough building out of knowledge through stories, questioning, and research. Time moves fast and few teachers feel they have time to linger in literature. That said, avoiding the single story is important, both for children’s development, their intellect, and their understanding of the world.

In a recent The Reading Teacher article, scholars Fenice Boyd, Lauren Causey and Lee Galda outlined three ways to bring more diverse literature into classrooms:

I would add to that list: make yourself aware of the single stories that your students have. What do they think they know about a group? And why? Then, consider how you can bring in stories—literature, video, media—to help them confront and reshape those single stories, one at a time.

More, More, More…Books for Young Interracial Readers

The Washington Post ran an essay today by Nevin Martell, who had trouble finding books that featured interracial characters for his son. Martell points out that, even as there is a lack of diversity in children’s books, “there is a depressing dearth of interracial ones.” And, the books that are out there (like in these lists in Cynthia Leitich Smith and What Do We Do All Day) are often about being biracial, rather than featuring a child who is experiencing something that has nothing to do with his background but just happens to be biracial.

I couldn’t agree more with Martell—we need more books that interracial children can look at and say, “they’re just like me!”

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In reading with my daughter, the books that have reflected her interracial experience the most have been Everywhere Babies by Susan Meyers and More, More, More, said the Baby by Vera Williams (Little Pumpkin has a grandma who is light-skinned). My daughter is still young, and by the time we get to reading longer picture books and early novels, I hope there are more “mirrors” for her.

Something to Talk About: Books that Demand Conversation

The New York Times recently reported on e-reading with young children—is it screen time or story time? The author points out that when young children read e-books they have lower reading comprehension, likely because the kids interact more with the device than the text. Kids also lose the social component of reading; in terms of learning, interacting with a screen is still no match for real-life conversation.

While I’m sure that reading e-books can be beneficial, especially as kids get older and are using interactive books during playtime, engaging kids with print books provides more than an e-reader can. The article mentions how parents were redirecting their kids’ use of the interactive storybook, making the experience about the device rather than the text. It occurs to me that that’s one of the nice things about reading a book—it’s all about time. When parents are reading with their kids, they have to be one-on-one (or two or three-on-one, but still, a low ratio). That ratio opens up a different type of interaction for parents and kids.

Of course, great kids books provide tons to talk about, from the pictures to what happens next. Still, in the spirit of early reading conversations, I’ve compiled a list of books that demand participation from the youngest readers:

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Are You a Cow? and Moo, Baa, LaLaLa by Sandra Boynton

Both of these books ask students to chime in either by confirming that they are NOT a pig, lamb, or hippo, or adding their voice to the mix of animal sounds.

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Home for a Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown

This book is also filled with questions and ponderings about where a bunny could live as he hops from animal house to house.

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Mr. Brown can Moo, Can You? By Dr. Seuss

Implicit in the title, Mr. Brown expects us to make noises just to show that we can.

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Don’t Let the Pidgeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems

Willems is a master at creating space for conversation in his books and the pidgeon books present one character that kids can talk back to.

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What do You do with a Tail Like This? by Steve Jenkins

This book, more informational than narrative, encourages kids to put their knowledge of animals to work as they talk about noses, tails, and more.

Board Book Round-Up: Top 5 Board Book Authors

I’ve been reading a lot of board books lately (my audience is one 5-month-old) and board books, because they are read over and over, can be delightful or dismal. Over the past five months, I’ve developed a list of authors that I seek out. So, without further ado, here are my top 5 board book authors:

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Sandra Boynton

Boynton is the board book queen. With titles like Belly Button Book, Hippos Go Berserk, and Are You a Cow? her books are whimsical, fun, charming, and make incredibly economic use of language.

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Karen Katz

Katz’s books from Counting Kisses to The Babies on the Bus (a rendition of The Wheels on the Bus that actually has plot development) make for roly-poly reading.

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Margaret Wise Brown

If Boynton is the queen of board books, Brown is the tsar. She wrote the insurmountable Good Night Moon (who doesn’t have that on their baby’s nightstand?) as well as my favorite The Runaway Bunny and the charming Big Red Barn. Hers are stories that your kids will read to their kids and on and on.

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Mary Brigid Barrett

Barrett’s rhymes in Pat-A-Cake and All Fall Down are winsome, and she seamlessly incorporates children and families of various ethnicities into her illustrations.

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Mary Murphy

Murphy’s simple illustrations and story lines (for books such as Quick Duck, I Kissed a Baby, and Slow Snail) are fun to read and the illustrations are clean, crisp drawings that delight.

Teaching with Multi-Cultural Texts: Getting to the How

The knowledge that kids should have about the world—from understanding the perspective of kids in Iraq to understanding the Chinese experience—can be overwhelming. It’s obvious that we should be exposing kids to multicultural literature, but the “how” is less explicit.

It’s tempting to fill classroom libraries with diverse titles and let students dive in. But, simply exposing students to multicultural literature without purpose or principles, can lead to indifference or resistance, which undermines the purpose of using the texts in the first place (Louie, 2006, 438).

Belinda Louis (2006) outlines principles for teaching with multicultural text. Here are the four that resonated with me:

Cultural Authenticity

While I agree that we should be looking to increase the number and reach of diverse authors, we should also look for authors who are thoughtful in their writing and research to create authentic experiences. The Breadwinner Series by Deborah Ellis is a good example of this. Ellis was inspired to write the story about Parvana and Shauzia after she read about the Taliban’s treatment of Afghanistan’s women and girls. Ellis’ research, including visiting refugee camps in Pakistan, inspired the characters and informed the authenticity of her stories.

Teach Perspective

The ability to understand different perspectives is key to applying lessons learned from literature to kids’ day-to-day life. Kids (like adults) rely on their own experiences first and use those to influence their understanding of fiction. So, stories are a way to help students understand other kids.

This resonates most when reading about the immigrant experience. Return to Sender by Julia Alvarez and La Linea by Ann Jaramillo are both books that encourage perspective-taking about the Hispanic-American immigrant experience. (And, here are 10 More books about the immigrant experience.)

Teach Values

Conflict sheds light on values. Examining how characters handle conflict, what they value, and how their expression of values may differ, is a huge benefit of using multicultural literature. The most important lesson to draw, though, is not that we’re different, but that humans share many of the same values, even if those values are expressed in different ways.

Respond and Reflect

Reading multicultural texts can be challenging for students, especially if they are encountering ideas that run counter to what they’ve believed in the past. If kids have the opportunity to “talk back” to text with their opinions, attitudes, and judgments, they’ll have the opportunity to process their understandings and develop them in ways that encourage communication.

Citation: Louie, Belinda. (2006) “Guiding Principles for Teaching Multicultural Literature.” International Reading Association, The Reading Teacher, 59(5).

Literature as Cross-Cultural Opportunity

In Julia Alvarez’s Return to Sender, Tyler, raised on a Vermont farm, and Mari, a Mexican immigrant who has been hired to help on Tyler’s family farm, become friends. Mari is worried about being deported, while Tyler worries for his family’s farm, yet their friendship withstands their differences. Return to Sender explores the challenges of building a friendship across cultures, even when it means reconciling your own ideas about a topic, in this case, illegal immigration.

There’s been a lot written about how reading fiction helps kids develop empathy and social skills. It also helps kids make and keep cross-cultural friendships. Jan Lacina and Robin Griffith, in their article, “Making New Friends: Using Literature to Inspire Cross-Cultural Friendships” (from the September/October issue of Reading Today) discuss the importance of being able to navigate cross-cultural friendships.

When kids have friends from different cultural heritages, they develop perspective, communication skills, and problem solving. And, as Lacina and Griffith point out, they demonstrate less prejudice. 

The world that today’s American kids inhabit is at once diverse and segregated. The New York Times reported that there are 5 million more students who are Hispanic or Asian today than there were in the 1990s. And, the diversity index, or the chance that two students, chosen at random, are of different ethnic groups has increased from 52% in 1993 to 61% in 2006 (higher numbers mean a more diverse student body).

But, even as diversity increases in America as a whole, individual schools and neighborhoods remain segregated. Earlier this year, when Brown vs. Board of Education turned 60, The Civil Rights Project assessed school segregation and found a disappointing picture:

  • The South has lost any desegregation progress made after 1967, but, despite this regression, it is still the most integrated region for African American students.
  • Hispanic students, which represent the largest minority group, are going to school in significantly segregated classrooms.

Overall, segregation is still the norm for students across the country. In a time when it’s imperative that students understand diverse perspectives and interact with people from different “worlds” than their own, reading about different cultures seem like an easy, foundational step that we can take. I’d love for kids who have grown up reading about cross-cultural friendships to seek out and make friends with people from different cultural backgrounds, and use that understanding to advocate for more diversity overall. The opportunity that students have when reading about cross-cultural friendships, after all, may be lost if there’s no one to befriend.