by Debbie LeeKeenan
We all know the benefit of reading to our children from the earliest ages—reading helps babies develop language, hearing words helps brain development by building a rich network of synapses, and reading creates a caring bond between the child and reader. But did you know another important reason to read to children is that books provide mirrors and windows1 to the world!
Children need to see themselves and their families reflected in the literature around them. When you see characters and images in a book that look like you and your family, it builds your confidence and self-esteem. When you do not see yourself, you wonder why does no one look like me? Is there something wrong with me? Where do I fit in? This can give you a negative message.
Tip: If you can’t find a published book that has the constellation of your own family, make your own family book with photos and a small 4×6 photo album. Write your own captions for each photo.
Books also provide a window to diversity that you and your family might not encounter on a daily basis. Books open windows and doors to new experiences, ideas and people.
When we provide our children with mirrors and windows, children notice similarities and differences. In some ways we are the same and in some ways we are different. We have different skin colors. We speak different languages. We have different abilities. We eat different foods. We have different beliefs. But we also share a common humanity. And that life is full of complexity.
As a Chinese-American, I recall two things growing up in the 1950’s: not seeing myself represented in the tools of school and recoiling when the only book the teacher read with Asian characters was, “The Five Chinese Brothers.” I remember thinking, no one in my family ever looked like the illustrations in that book (the cartoonish slanty eyes and crayon-yellow skin).
Thank goodness today there are many more choices in the children’s books and many of them provide accurate images and experiences. It is important to expose children to a range of books about differences: race, ethnicity, ability, family structure, religion, etc.
Tip: Have more than one book about a specific identity group; since there are different experiences within every group.
With young children most of the books should focus on current life and discuss themes that are common in children’s lives. With older children you can read traditional folktales and have a discussion about the differences between a traditional and modern context. Your goal is to unlearn stereotypes, not create them. Choose diverse books that are engaging stories that teach children important truths without having to spell out the “moral of the story.”
No matter what books you choose to read, here are some additional tips to help children develop positive social identities and widen their world view:
- Acknowledge that every story has mirror and window possibilities, by asking “How are we the same or different from the people in this book?”
- Emphasize we live in a complex and diverse world.
- Read stories where the child’s background and life experiences are represented in a positive light and validated.
- Discuss ideas in the story to unpack mirror possibilities for all children.
- Choose stories that represent positive aspects of the human spirit and where characters work together for collective action.
- Be open to discussions of inequality or unfairness that you see in stories and in life. Discuss with children a vision for a better world, and empower them with questions asking “What can we do to make it better?”
Some of my favorite infant-toddler board books that promote diversity:
Baby Talk by Stella Blackstone
Clap Hands by Oxenbury (All Fall Down)
Dim Sum for Everyone by Grace Lin
Everywhere Babies by Susan Meyers
Global Babies by the Global Fund for Kids
Green is a Chili Pepper: A Book of Colors by Roseann Thong and John Parra
Machines at Work by Byron Barton
Mama Do You Love Me? by Barbara Joosee
More More More Said the Baby by Vera B Williams
Round is a Mooncake: A Book of Shapes by Roseanne Thong
Say Hello by Rachel Isadora
Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes by Mem Fox
Ten Tiny Babies by Karen Katz
The Family Book by Todd Parr
The Anti-Defamation League has curated book lists for kids and parents on a variety of topics, including Ability, Disability & Ableism, Discrimination & Hate, Gender & Sexism, Jewish Culture & Anti-Semitism, Race & Racism, Religion & Religious Bigotry and more.
Current book lists for children, including African American Heritage, World Fiction, South Asian Heritage, Native American Heritage, Hispanic Heritage, Middle Eastern Heritage, Asian and Pacific Heritage, LGBTQ+ Books and I See Me on the KCLS website. (If this library is not how you get your books, you can use the lists for getting the books where you typically get them.)
Colours of Us – Picture Books about Mixed Race Families
The Pura Belpre Medal – named for the first Latina librarian in the New York Public Library
The Stonewall Book Awards has categories for children and youth, including non-fiction
1Dr. Rudine Simms Bishop coined the terms in her 1990 article “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors“ originally published in The Ohio State University Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom. Vo6. no3. Summer 1990.
About the Author
Debbie LeeKeenan is an early childhood consultant, lecturer, and author. She has been in the field of early education for over 45 years. She is a former preschool and elementary school teacher. She was director of the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School at Tufts University from 1996 to 2013. In addition to being a faculty member in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, she was a member of the early childhood faculty at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts and the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Her publications include co-author of Leading Anti-Bias Early Childhood Programs: A Guide for Change with Louise Derman-Sparks and John Nimmo, and contributing author to Proactive Parenting: Guiding Your Child from Two to Six. Debbie is also an active grandmother, recently moving to Seattle and caring for her young granddaughter here and facetiming daily with her teen granddaughter in Austin, Texas. She currently serves on the board of PEPS. For more information about Debbie’s work and resources see her website http://www.antibiasleadersece.com/.