When I left California to start teaching in international schools, all of the sudden I had kids from 10 different countries speaking 8 different languages under one roof. To create a diverse bookshelf that represented my students and their experiences was the first task on my list.
I had to study long and hard in school about geography, languages, religion, music, etc. from all over the world. Now, here was a classroom full of 1st graders that had real life experience with these cultures, traditions, and languages that I had only read about in books.
I was handed a gift when I was faced with such a broad group of students. They had vastly different levels of English as well as cultural, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. Teaching with inclusion and diversity took on a new meaning with real-life students that had experienced what I had only read in books.
Today, I want to share a literature road map to raise children and students who know how to read well, while simultaneously learning the anatomy of a diverse bookshelf to promote global citizenship.
The Anatomy of a Diverse Bookshelf
More so than ever, classrooms all over the world are becoming more multiracial and multicultural. I believe our bookshelves in classrooms and at home need to reflect the world around us. I believe in being intentional with the books that we teach children how to read with, as well as books we enjoy together while reading aloud.
Teaching literacy skills while also teaching children to read the world gives them the stepping stones towards learning empathy and tolerance. This is so very important to do while they are young. Just like with food, TV, clothing, sports, etc… the books they read are shaping their worldview.
Raise a literature foodie, fashionista, polyglot, athlete, and critic with the books on your shelf.
Checklist for a Diverse Bookshelf
For each of the categories below, I will give you a few resources from many literacy experts, teachers, book bloggers, and the media. These incredibly practical resources will add diverse and multicultural books to your home or classroom library. By no means is this an exhaustive list, but a helpful tool to get you started. These multicultural book lists can also be bookmarked for future reference depending on the age of the children in your home/classroom.
Keep the inclusive children’s book laws in mind when you put all of these amazing titles on your shelves. How you sort these books shows inclusion, not having “special” or “diverse” shelves is crucial.
Reading books about different geographical regions is paramount from birth. From board books, to picture books, all the way to chapter books, geography should make its mark on your bookshelves. This is how we will help children not only become more aware of places around the world, but become more aware of the generalizations. (Ex. Africa being referred to as a “country” instead of a continent with a multitude of climates, religions, natural resources, food, etc.)
Furthermore, books that represent urban, rural, and suburban communities need to be represented. You want your big city kids to learn about the country and vice versa. I remember once having to explain a picture of a garbage disposal. There was a lively debate over something simple. Exposure to these subtleties of the varying kind of communities is crucial, especially to multiple language learners.
You can also use virtual field trip using Google Lit Trips to visit the setting of a book and be able to visualize the book in 3D. Let the characters leap off the page and you will have them begging for more.
USBBY Outstanding International Books List (OIB)-These books:
- represent the best of children´s literature from other countries
- introduce American readers to outstanding authors and illustrators from other countries
- help American children see the world from other points of view
- provide a perspective or address a topic otherwise missing from children´s literature in the U.S.
- exhibit a distinct cultural flavor
All Done Monkey- Adventure books for kids of all ages
KidsTravelBooks.com- A comprehensive online library tool with books arranged by continent and country. The Books by Type section helps you fine-tune your search for books about history, everyday life, true stories, activities and more. The blog has author interviews and book reviews. The Resource Library has summer reading programs, a free downloadable Travel Journal, book lists, and more.
Holidays and Festivals
A great way to spark any discussion with children is throwing a party. Cultural festivals and holidays can be a great introduction where kids will want to learn more independently. Bookmark this calendar of world holidays and historical events so that you can seamlessly integrate the cultural heritage, religious customs and holidays, and important events in history.
There is nothing wrong with assigning a month or week to a specific focus (Asian Heritage Month, Pride Month, etc.). However, children need to see the integration of cultures and historical figures as well.
Thankfully, we have technology that has already done the research for us. So, with a click of a button, we can add books to our wish list or school supply order that represent an array of important holidays and festivals around the globe.
Kid World Citizen- Diversity Calendar
Miss Panda Chinese-Picture Books for Celebrating Chinese (Lunar) New Year
Day Zero Project- Top 50 Festivals and Cultural Events
Social Justice and Activism
Environmental factors, school, and family background play a large role in what children become passionate about. There are an innumerable number of worthy causes to inspire children to action. Whatever the cause may be, let’s help children learn about them. Your community is a starting place.
What We Do All Day- Picture books to inspire activism
Social Justice Books- A list of 50 carefully selected lists of multicultural and social justice books for children, young adults, and educators.
Gender and Equality
I recently wrote an article about the number of picture books showcasing female protagonists. The main characters in many classic and popular picture books- whether they are human, animal, truck, or a crayon- are almost always male. As Jennie Yabroff put it, we should want to show our kids that girls can be anything — and anything can be a girl.
No more than 33 percent of children’s books in any given year featured an adult woman or female animal. Alternatively, adult men and male animals appeared in 100 percent of the books. Adding famous and everyday female role models, as well as non-traditional family books on the shelves of every child’s home and classroom is an important piece of the puzzle in making a diverse bookshelf.
Amelia Bloomer Book List- The Amelia Bloomer Project, a committee of the Feminist Task Force of the Social Responsibilities Round Table, compiles this amazing book list. The committee publishes a list annually of well-written and well-illustrated books with significant feminist content, intended for young readers (ages birth through 18).
Rainbow Project Book List- The Rainbow Project Book List is list of recommended books dealing with gay, lesbian, bisexual, trangendered and questioning issues and situations for children up to age 18.
My Frugal Adventures- Chapter Books for Girls 6-9 Years Old
No Time for Flashcards- LGBT picture books
Scholastic- Transgender picture books
A Mighty Girl- Top Books on Bullying Prevention
No Time for Flash Cards- Diverse books showcasing dads involved in parenting
Pack n’ Go Girls- adventure chapter books for girls
History and Religion
Choosing biographies and autobiography books that are historically accurate is also very influential in shaping a child’s worldview. There are valuable lessons in reading books that show misrepresented or marginalized communities. The same is true when teaching the history of various religions from around the world.
However, we need to be careful reading stories that are rewriting history or “white-washed”. For example, when you celebrate Dr. Seuss week, it is important to also discuss his earlier works that show African Americans depicted as monkeys, as well as Fox in Socks. We have to tell the whole story.
I do not advocate for children being exposed to mature content before they are developmentally ready, but we need to balance the make-believe world of characters like Santa Claus with the reality of history.
A Mighty Girl- Books for all ages about Civil Rights History
Imagination Soup- Biography Picture Book List
This may seem like the “easiest” part of having diverse bookshelves. However, when you have main characters of color, be careful of stereotypes. Reading stories about slaves or Mexican immigrants who are harvesting crops is not giving children the full picture of African or Hispanic heritage.
Although, these are hard topics to navigate, they are in desperate need of being discussed. If children are taught “not to see color”, there is missed opportunity to celebrate unique racial backgrounds. Raising racially conscious children is needed to dismantle the color-blind framework and prepare young people to work toward racial justice.
Oyate Criteria For Evaluating Books (Native American)- Criteria from How to Tell the Difference: A Guide for Evaluating Children’s Books for Anti-Indian Bias by Doris Seale, Beverly Slapin and Rosemary Gonzales.
Sydney Taylor Book Award- outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience
Piri Piri Lexicon- Learn About the World Through Books
What We Do All Day- Jewish Folktales for Kids
Crafty Mom- Picture books for learning about the Inuit
Pura Belpre Award- The Pure Belpré Award is presented annually to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.
Coretta Scott King Book Awards (African-American) – The Coretta Scott King Book Award titles promote understanding and appreciation of the culture of all peoples and their contribution to the realization of the American dream of a pluralistic society. These books portray some aspect of the black experience, past, present, or future.
Immigration is a hot topic of discussion in the world right now. Immigrants come in all shapes and sizes. Regularly including books about refugees from nations all over the world is very significant for creating a diverse bookshelf.
Having discussions on international human rights can be of great consequence to push back to welcome refugees and influence children to think of refugees as a positive and welcome part of their community.
Colours of Us- Children’s Books about Immigration
A Mighty Girl- Stories highlighting female refugees
Youth for Human Rights- FREE social justice and human rights curriculum for teachers (free online for non-educators)
Anna McQuinn is one of my favorite authors for her attitude towards inclusion of book characters with disabilities. She stands for a world full of stories for everyone. Through books like Zeki Can Swim, she shows how children with disabilities still delight in the fun activities that “normal” kids do. Books showing characters with diabetes, PTSD, mental health issues, etc. can be very strategic for cultivating a more inclusive classroom and home environment.
Schneider Family Book Awards (Disability)- The Schneider Family Book Awards honor an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences.
What We Do All Day- Picture Books with Children with Special Needs
You can cultivate an increasingly tolerant classroom environment by intentionally choosing books that show more than middle class, heterosexual families with 1.5 kids, a dog, and the use of sidewalks.
Give children books that show more than the white picket fence, even when they are learning their colors and numbers. Paint pictures in their minds of children just like them who do not take the simple things for granted.
Engage kids in teaching an attitude of gratitude and selflessness to help those around them without access to basic human rights. We need to help kids understand poverty as well as wealth and not be fearful of either.
Imagination Soup- Picture books and novels about poverty
Investing in Children- Picture books about gratitude for children
Education Week Teacher- Chapter and picture books that help build community and inclusion
Doing Good Together- Picture Books that Illuminate Hunger, Poverty, and Homelessness in America
Mathematics and STEM
I find many parents and educators having to “explain” the word problems when it comes to mathematics. Children often tense up when they get to a science/ STEM class.
There is a HUGE chunk of literacy that is often not given a lot of attention in “reading” classes. There was a reading connection with each and every math and STEM lesson I taught, but due to time constraints, I would skip those books more often than not.
I had to consciously think about books that would illustrate math and STEM concepts in books so that children had a fighting chance when it got to the word problems on a page. Fractions, multiplication, and engineering can be built into your read aloud and language arts curriculum.
Scholastic- Teaching math with picture books
The Best Children’s Books- teaching math literacy in books
Little Bins for Little Hands- STEM inspired books kids will love
The Educators Spin on It- The Ultimate Guide to STEM Books for Children
University of Arkansas College of Education (printable PDF)- Using STEM to Integrate Literature into Your Elementary Classroom
Most often, teachers and parents will celebrate milestones with young children such as losing a tooth or the first day of Kindergarten. Milestones are all deserving a big celebration, but each child is different.
A milestone looks very different in every child’s life. However, goal setting with each individual child is paramount. When kids take a step towards achieving goals, those should be celebrated. Often times the outward accomplishments are celebrated in books (winning a sports competition or riding a bike).
A Mighty Girl- Picture and chapter books for graduates
Operation We are Here- Books for Military Families
Bustle- 20 Best Children’s Books for Having “The Talk” (for girls and boys of every age)
New York Times- Picture Books about Moving
If you took a look at the number of authors of color that you have represented on your bookshelves, how big would the stack be? In an NPR article, they explain the need for more diversity in the book publishing world as it has a huge affect on the kinds of books that are marketed in the mainstream. Supporting a self-published author or independent publishing company with more diversity in the books they offer can make a huge difference.
You can also a bit of research to find out the WHY behind the book. This will be the difference in a book being forgettable or something a child talks about for years. Just like you take the time to discuss the book characters, take an extra minute to point out the book author and illustrator. Young children have to be taught that teachers don’t live at the school. You would be surprised at the comments children will make when you tell them the author is from the same hometown as them.
Like seeing a teacher at the grocery store, take children to a local book festival to get their favorite book signed and watch their eyes pop out of their head. It is life changing for a young reader to meet a famous author. Let’s give diverse book celebrities to adore!
Spanish Mama- 50 picture books written by native Spanish authors
Joy Sun Bear- Picture books by Korean Authors
Hispanic Mama- 12 Best Hispanic Novels of All Time
Here Wee Read- Keep up to date with the latest diverse books from authors of color with an enormous list of book reviews
Song and Poetry
Folk songs, nursery, poems, and lyrics can pry a reluctant reader off the iPad and head first into a book. Most children are more than willing to read when it is a catchy tune or rhyme, rather than a text heavy book. Rhymers are readers, and learning content and vocabulary through song is not only better for long term memory, but incredibly fun and engaging. You can use music to improve reading skills and hand them song lyrics as a fun alternative to a book.
Adding books in multiple languages is highly valuable in teaching literacy as well as global citizenship. You may be teaching multiple languages to your children and students, or simply collecting books as souvenirs as you travel. Reading bilingual books can create wonderful connections, as well as teach empathy.
If you yourself don’t speak the language, there are amazing resources on You Tube and other free online language learning resources that will read them for you!
Kid World Citizen- Games, books, and toys for learning multiple languages (Hindi, Spanish, Chinese, and more)
Lu and Bean Read- Picture Books to learn Spanish Vocabulary
Raising a Trilingual Child- Russian Children’s Books and Videos
In the Playground- Arabic Picture Books and Games
Bicultural Mama- French Bilingual Book Series
Bilingual Kid Spot- Personalized kids books (12 language options)
How to Get Children to Read More
Children will read more if they think the book is funny or interesting. So, let’s give the people what they want and find award-winning children’s literature to fill your diverse bookshelf. In turn, this will help them become global citizens with a little reading magic.
Take out the guesswork and give children the most colorful bookshelves possible for simultaneously raising global citizens as we raise our readers.
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