17 diverse children’s books to add to your family’s ‘must-read’ list

Published on March 8, 2021 in

Learning starts the day a child is born — and that truth applies to learning about diversity, too. That’s why our early childhood education team created a list of book recommendations to help enhance family libraries and ensure that all children see their own unique characteristics represented in books, and learn about other races, religions and cultures. 

The idea took hold last year as a wave of social justice rallies began throughout the country, according to Ashley Hart, early education training and technical assistance specialist at United Way for Southeastern Michigan. 

“We asked ourselves, ‘How can we contribute to the conversation? How can we help?” 

Our Early Childhood Education Inclusive Reading List was the result. It’s full of books that contain characters of different genders, races, socio-economic classes, abilities, religions, sexual orientations, life experiences, holidays and celebrations.  

We work with child care providers who, in turn, work with children and families, and we wanted to deepen our toolbox to introduce a variety of story experiences for children. 

mom reading book to kids on couch

It’s important to ensure that kids have exposure to characters and stories featuring diversity in their race, gender, cultural and religous norms, abilities, and other factors.

THE IMPORTANCE OF DIVERSITY 

Numerous studies show that children start recognizing people by race and by gender as young as 6 months old. By the time they hit preschool, they may have already developed biases based on race or other factors. 

Additionally, it’s important for all children to grow up reading books filled with characters that look like them and share their religious and cultural heritage. 

There has been a rise in recent years in the number of books containing multicultural content, but the numbers are still low. In 2017, 31 percent of children’s books were by and/or about people of color and native people, according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center.

“Ultimately, you want your children to see themselves in the books and to be able to identify themselves and who they come into contact with,” Ashley said. 

Showcasing different types of characters help children “know it’s OK to be different. 

BOOK LIST HIGHLIGHTS 

“When it comes to early childhood, I’m passionate about everything,” Ashley said, touching on a few of her favorite books on the list. 

“I like ‘Julian Is A Mermaid’ and ‘Pink Is For Boys’ because sometimes we don’t realize our own biases and come to a certain conclusion,” she said. One tells the story of a boy who wants to participate in a mermaid parade and the other proves that colors are for everyone, regardless of gender. 

Other highlights include the Taye Diggs-authored “Mixed Me,” an ode to self-confidence in “Hair Love” and “F Is For Feelings,” which helps children find the words to describe how they feel and what it means.  

Also on the list is “The Proudest Blue,” written by Olympic medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad, which focuses on the first day of school and one girl’s first day wearing a hijab. 

Find the full list below and start reading with your family for March is Reading Month! 

  1. “Julian is a Mermaid” by Jessica Love: This book tells the story of a boy who wants to become a mermaid and participate in the Coney Island Mermaid Parade.
  2. “My Heart Fills with Happiness” by Monique Gray Smith: This book was created to support the wellness of Indigenous children and families, and to encourage young children to reflect on what makes them happy.
  3. “Feast for 10” by Cathryn Falwell: A counting book that features an African-American family shopping for food, preparing dinner, and sitting down to eat.
  4. “All the Colors of the Earth” by Sheila Hamanaka: Celebrate the colors of children and the colors of love — not black or white or yellow or red, but roaring brown, whispering gold, tinkling pink, and more.
  5. “Scaredy Kate” by Jacob Grant: Kate has a problem. She’s terrified of her aunt’s big bulldog. Kate’s aunt calls the dog Cookie. Kate calls it a monster! This story is attuned to the sensibilities of young children.
  6. “What to Do with a Rebozo” by Carmen Tafolla: In a playful celebration of vibrant culture, a young girl and her family show all the things they do in their daily lives with a rebozo, a traditional Mexican woven shawl. Lively prose and rich illustrations honor a warm and colorful cultural icon. You can do almost anything with a rebozo — and a little imagination!
  7. “Please Baby Please” by Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee: From moments fussy to fond, Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Spike Lee and his wife, producer Tonya Lewis Lee, present a behind-the-scenes look at the chills, spills, and unequivocal thrills of bringing up baby!
  8. “Pink is for Boys” by Robb Pearlman: An empowering and educational picture book that proves colors are for everyone, regardless of gender. Pink is for boys … and girls … and everyone.
  9. “F is for Feelings” by Goldie Millar and Lisa A. Berger: We all feel many different emotions every day. For young children, those feelings can be extra strong, and sometimes, children need help finding the words to describe how they feel and what it means.
  10. “Mrs. Katz and Tush” by Patricia Polacco: In this special Passover story, Larnel Moore, a young African-American boy, and Mrs. Katz, an elderly Jewish woman, develop an unusual friendship through their mutual concern for an abandoned cat named Tush. Together they explore the common themes of suffering and triumph in each of their cultures.
  11. “Fathers Walk” by Margaret Bernstein: This is the third book in Margaret Bernstein’s series of read-aloud stories, all of which depict a fun day spent by a father and his child. The book is a tribute to the annual Fathers Walk, also known as the Million Fathers March. It’s a day when fathers walk their children into school and pledge to stay involved for the school year.
  12. “Hair Love” by Matthew A. Cherry & Vashti Harrison: It’s up to Daddy to give his daughter an extra-special hair style in this ode to self-confidence and the love between fathers and daughters.
  13. “Mixed Me!” By Taye Diggs: Mike has awesome hair. He has LOTS of energy! His parents love him. And Mike is a PERFECT blend of the two of them.
  14. “Abuela” by Arthur Dorros: This book is from the point of view of a little girl named Rosalba and her Abuela, which means ” grandma” in Spanish. They celebrate their home and relationship!
  15. “Dream Big, Little One” by Vashti Harrison: A board book that talks about the accomplishments of famous Black Women like Ella Fitzgerald, Katherine Johnson, Maya Angelou, Josephine Baker, Mae Jemison, and more.
  16. “Antiracist Baby” by Ibram X. Kendi: A board book written by a lead anti-racists activist and best-selling author.
  17. “The Proudest Blue” by Ibtihaj Muhammad: With her new backpack and light-up shoes, Faizah knows the first day of school is going to be special. It’s the start of a brand new year and, best of all, it’s her older sister Asiya’s first day of hijab–a hijab of beautiful blue fabric, like the ocean waving to the sky. But not everyone sees hijab as beautiful, and in the face of hurtful, confusing words, Faizah will find new ways to be strong.

Editor’s noteLearn more from Ashley Hart during Early Literacy: Why It’s Important to Bring Diverse Stories to Your Children and How to Talk About Them. The session, part of our What’s the Word Wednesday with United Way virtual town hall series, is scheduled for 10 a.m. on Wednesday, March 24.