Mom Talk: Why We All Need to Read Diverse Books To Our Kids
Written by Christine Platt
Photography by PHOTOGRAPHED BY ERIKA LAYNE
For today’s Mom Talk we have one of our favorite mamas back for more. We first fell in love with Christine Platt‘s minimalist-yet-personality-filled D.C. abode and the way she melded career, activism, and motherhood. And recently, the literacy activist and author (we adore her kids’ series, Ana & Andrew) has been touring elementary schools, teaching history, race, equity, diversity, and inclusion to people of all ages, calling for educational justice and policy reform, and reading some of her favorite books to kids. In today’s Mom Talk, she explains why diverse kids’ books matter, and why reading books with a diverse cast of characters is crucial for all kids.
As an author of culturally responsive children’s literature, most of my days are spent writing stories, reading stories to children, and talking about the importance of diverse stories to parents and educators. To say that I am passionate about my work is an understatement—I beyond love what I do. One of the main reasons I am so enthusiastic about children’s literature is because I’m reminded daily of the impact it can have on young people, and ultimately, society. Books are one of the best ways to teach children about the importance of race, equity, diversity, and inclusion. The world we wish to see is easier to show than tell.
In 1990, Professor Emerita of Education at The Ohio State University Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop famously noted, “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.” Dr. Sims coined “windows and mirrors,” a popular terminology in children’s literature. Put simply, books serve as windows by allowing young readers to peek into the lives of children with different lived experiences. They also serve as mirrors by allowing children to see themselves.
Think of your favorite childhood story or the childhood stories you lovingly reread because you saw yourself represented on the page. If you identify as Caucasian or White, you will have plenty of books to choose from. It might even be difficult to narrow your favorite selections to one or two stories. As a Black woman, it’s rather easy for me: my favorite childhood story was Corduroy by Don Freeman. Corduroy was one of the few stories where I saw myself reflected on the pages of book: a young black girl who enjoyed going shopping with her mother and loved teddy bears. Corduroy was and remains one of the only mirror books I recall from my childhood. Yes, I read plenty of other stories, but they were window books—I was always peeking into the lives of characters who didn’t represent me.
What are the dangers in having children only read mirror books, you might ask? Well, there are plenty. But at the forefront is teaching children their lives and experiences are the only ones that matter. Which is also a detriment to children who only read window books: it is essentially teaching them that their lives and the history and culture of their communities don’t matter. From increasing confidence to learning to respect and value differences to developing love and appreciation for the written word, representation in children’s literature matters. The publishing industry has seen a small shift in culturally responsive literature since I was a child, but Lee and Low’s most recent survey shows just how underrepresented diversity remains in publishing. However, change is underway thanks to the growing demand for diverse stories. And there’s no need for me to shamelessly plug my work—there are plenty of resources available to help families, schools, and communities diversify their libraries.
One of my favorite diversity and equity in children’s literacy resources is HereWeeRead, which promotes diverse children’s offerings and book reviews for every age group. Another favorite resource is We Need Diverse Books, an organization of children’s book lovers that advocates for essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people. Other notable organizations dedicated to helping parents and educators expand their libraries and educational offerings to be more inclusive include Embrace Race and Teaching for Change.
Recently, whenever I talk about the importance of window and mirror books, I also reference Christopher Myers’ New York Times op-ed, “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature.” I love Myers’ outlook that children also need maps: stories that will help them navigate the world and become global citizens: “Perhaps this exclusivity, in which children of color are at best background characters, and more often than not absent, is in fact part of the imaginative aspect of these books. But what it means is that when kids today face the realities of our world, our global economies, our integrations and overlappings, they all do so without a proper map,” he writes. “They are navigating the streets and avenues of their lives with an inadequate, outdated chart, and we wonder why they feel lost.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s recent projections, in 2043 America will be a majority-minority country—the population will be composed of less than 50% non-Hispanic whites. And the impact of this projection will be seen much sooner in our economy and workforce. In the coming years, there will be an increased need for individuals to honor and respect the many different cultures and nationalities that comprise our society. And the younger generation who we read stories to today will be responsible for upholding these values. How can we help them? By providing them with windows, mirrors, and maps through diversifying our homes and local libraries with inclusive children’s literature.
Storytelling is one of the easiest and accessible approaches for teaching race, equity, diversity, and inclusion. Don’t just tell children how important it is to respect, value, and honor our differences. When you read to children, show them on the pages of books.
For great diverse book recommendations, check out our roundups on Black History Books For Kids, Kids Books About Gender, Children’s Books That Spotlight LGBTQ+ Characters, Books That Shine A Light On Different Abilities, Kids’ Books That Celebrate Muslim Faith & Culture, Books With Strong Female Leads, The Best Children’s Books of 2019, and our favorite books-themed Instagram accounts to follow!
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I agree with what you said that it’s important to introduce kids to diverse books so they would be able to learn about race, equity, diversity, and inclusion at a young age. With racism still rampant in our society, I would love it if my kids know about the struggles minorities and how history has not been kind to them. Perhaps I should look for a reputable African fiction book publisher and buy books they have published. Thanks for this beautiful article!
It’s great that you mentioned books serve as windows for children to peek into other people’s lives with different experiences. Also, they can also serve as mirrors for children to reflect among themselves. With that in mind, perhaps I should start purchasing some faith-based books for my children to instill Christian values in them. Thanks!