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When my daughter was 3, I took her to her first Yom Kippur service. This is the holiest day of the year in Judaism: the day when we ask forgiveness of those we’ve harmed and repent for our sins. Our synagogue has two young female rabbis—not a common occurrence—and my hitherto non-practicing Jewish daughter sat utterly fixated, staring at these two women with nothing but awe in her eyes. She turned to me and said, “One day I want to be a Rabbi.”
It was a clear example of You can only become what you can see. Cue: the importance of diversity in children’s books.
In describing the need for representation in children’s books, non-profit organization We Need Diverse Books quotes a 1990 article from professor and author Rudine Bishop Sims: “When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part.”
But the lack of representation in media isn’t just an issue for people of color—it’s an issue for all of us.
On the occasion of the unveiling of her portrait at the National Portrait Gallery, Michelle Obama wrote, “This is all a little bit overwhelming, especially when I think about all of the young people who will visit the National Portrait Gallery and see this, including so many young girls and young girls of color who don’t often see their images displayed in beautiful and iconic ways.”
For children of color, seeing people who look like them represented in media like books, movies, or art, can actually affect them in a positive way. It’s proof that there’s space for them, both on the page and in the world. For white children, experiencing diverse media can help prevent a distorted view of their world. All kids, regardless of background, need to know that there are all kinds of people in the world—that we all have hopes and dreams and struggles, and that some struggles, like those involving race or gender or sexuality, are particular to some.
In honor of Black History Month, here are some wonderful books to add into your kids’ collection and to share with friends:
by Innosanto Nagara
Dubbed Howard Zinn’s The People’s History of the United States for kids, this gorgeous board book moves through the alphabet teaching kids about key tenets of activism—justice and peace—and vital freedom fighters who’ve forged the path, like Malcolm X.
(also!) by Innosanto Nagara
This book is all about the value of community and being able to count on those around you. Kids of various colors and backgrounds come together to plant seeds and reap the harvest.
by Ezra Jack Keats
The joy of this beautiful board book is that it is simply about a boy named Peter exploring the snow—and that boy happens to be black. Unlike so many books about kids of color in general—and African American kids in particular—this is not a book about race. Keats has a whole collection based on Peter and his friends including Whistles for Willie, A Letter to Amy, and Peter’s Chair.
by Vashti Harrison
From abolitionist Sojourner Truth to chemist Alice Ball and poet–writer Maya Angelou, you and your kids will learn about African American women who’ve changed the world in extraordinary ways.
by Bobbi Kates and Joe Mathieu
Sesame Street has you covered! This lovely book explores all the ways we can be different—race, gender, sexuality—and all the ways we share the same hopes and dreams.
by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson
Why don’t we own a car? Why do we get off the bus in the not-so-nice part of town? CJ asks his grandma these and other questions as they travel to and from church. This books explores the beautiful bond between CJ and his grandmother, the ways in which we are different, and the beauty we can find anywhere.
by Monica Brown and Sara Palacios
This charming bilingual book explores the funny ways our cultures intersect under our skins. Marisol loves peanut butter burritos and has nut-brown skin and red hair. To her, these are totally natural combinations.
by Trish Cooke and Paul Howard
Focused on the sweet relationship between Jay Jay and his Grannie, this book welcomes the reader into a boisterous Sunday night dinner and the love among family.
by Debbie Levy and Vanessa Brantley Newton
How much power does one song hold? A lot! This book traces the history of the iconic song that became the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement and pays tribute to the music that helped change the course of American life.
Looking for more? Check out We Need Diverse Books, which is working to transform the publishing industry in hopes of promoting literature that reflects and honors the lives of all kids.