There’s a famous 1940s study—the Clark and Clark “doll tests”—that demonstrated that African-American children aligned positive values with white dolls, opting for those over dolls that shared their own skin color.
“The toys that children play with help shape their versions of reality,” says global curriculum designer Gahmya Drummond-Bey. “Through toys, children often decide what is deemed ‘normal’ or even beautiful.”
That study focused on toys, but the reality is that almost everything kids are exposed to will shape their views on what the world should look like. That includes books.
“Literature is a huge part of how young people get introduced to stories and narratives and representation of other people and themselves,” says Nicole Johnson, executive director of We Need Diverse Books. “To combat discrimination head on, children must be exposed to diverse literature to help reveal the influence of race, to teach understanding, and also to help build empathy.”
Rudine Sims Bishop, professor emerita of education at The Ohio State University, who’s also been called the “mother of multicultural literature,” introduced the concept of children’s literature as either a window that provided readers a glipse of a world outside their homes, or a mirror that reflected the reader through the lives of relatable characters.
Johnson says kids need both. But when it comes to children’s books by and about people of color, the numbers suggest readers rarely get it.
According to information compiled in 2018 by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 50 percent of children’s books depict white characters. But only 10 percent depict Black characters. (Books with First Nations, Latino, and Asian-Pacific-American protagonists are even fewer.) That means kids of color have many “windows” into a white world, but white children are reading books that are mostly mirrors, without diverse characters or ideas.
Parents who build a diverse home library can change that.
“The world is diverse. There isn’t a single experience, so our bookshelves shouldn’t have a single experience represented in them,” Johnson says. “You want to give young people a space to see what is possible and to really connect with folks outside themselves.”
Erin Pahlke, associate professor of psychology at Whitman College, agrees, noting that kids as young as six months old can differentiate between faces from different racial groups. “It’s just not true to say kids don’t see color or that they don’t notice race,” she says. “Kids are looking at what’s going on around them and trying to make sense of the world.”
Parents can foster that inquisitiveness with their home library, she says. “Having a diverse media landscape in your house gives kids examples of lots of different, positive people who are from different racial and ethnic groups,” Pahlke says. “It also gives families an opening to have important conversations.”
Here’s how to build a diverse home library for your children.
Figure out what’s missing
Sit with your kids, pull all the books off their shelves, and talk about what you see … and what you don’t.
“Infant and toddler board books tend to focus on shapes, animals, or inanimate objects,” Johnson says. “That’s lovely, but when you're teaching about human connection and empathy, you need actual human beings in the book.”
If all your books include dogs or all the protagonists are male, point that out to your kids. “Step back and look at everything,” Johnson says. “If I was a young child trying to figure out the world based on what I see here, what would I think?”
Be intentional about diversity
If your collection lacks racial diversity, intentionally and vocally set out to fix that. Start by adding books that have pictures and relatable characters of other races.
“Part of it is normalizing the idea that lots of different people and groups are out there interacting with one another,” Pahlke says. But don’t feel like you need to constantly point out race as you read. The key, she says, is having children understand diversity as something that’s normal, good, and positive.
Not all the books need to be anti-racist biographies, or about slavery or civil rights. Make sure your collection has titles that simply show people of color in typical situations.
“Any kindergartner can relate to a story about the first day of school,” Johnson says. “Put those books on the shelf alongside titles that are more historical, or about identity and culture, current events, and social justice.”
Talk about what you’re reading
Don’t just buy the books and put them on the shelf, Pahlke says. Instead, use them as an opportunity to reinforce family values. Johnson suggests asking questions like:
—What's going on in this picture?
—What do you notice about the characters?
—How are they feeling?
—How is it making you feel?
—How do you know what's happening in the story?
—How do you know they're feeling that way?
—How are the characters like you or people you know? How are they different?
The two latter questions give a child the chance to shift perspective. “The first gives the child an opportunity to reflect on the thoughts and feelings of those in their community, who they may not regularly engage with,” Drummond-Bey says. “The second question compels them to see themselves in those who may seem nothing like them.”
As a parent, you’re listening for how your child understands race and gently correcting value judgments. And it won’t always be comfortable, Johnson warns.
“We're trying to figure out a different way of being, and that that's not easy,” she says. “It takes intentionality and it takes knowing—as the adult who's modeling for your kids—what you hope they'll value.”
Know where to look
These sites will help you get started selecting titles for a more diverse home library collection.
We Need Diverse Books’ “Our Story” app highlights books with diverse content and by content creators from marginalized communities. Parents can use the free version; a paid version for educators is also available.
The Diverse Book Finder is a collection curated by academics and professionals in the fields of psychology, children’s books, library science, and gender studies. You can browse their database or to pop into themed collections that help you narrow your choices for particular types of readers.
A resource section on EmbraceRace.org offers suggestions for children’s literature based on whether you want to read aloud, flip through pictures, or dive deeper into a specific genre.
A blog from the Children’s Book Council focuses on diverse books and includes interviews with authors and illustrators, along with recommendations.