Nine Ways to Diversify Your Children’s Book Collection and Move from “We Should Diversify” to “We Are Diversifying”

By Sailaja Joshi

By Amy Maranville

You have books on your shelves. Your kids are reading them. No matter if you’re a teacher, parent, or librarian, there’s always room to add more diversity to your collection. This list will take you from “I know we need to do this” to “we are actively doing it.” 

Why does this matter? Because we still have more books about anthropomorphized animals out there than books about children of color. Because children of color need to see themselves as heroes just as much as white kids do. Because white kids need to see that they aren’t the only ones out there; they aren’t the only heroes. And because the purpose of literature is to expand horizons and imaginations. Diversity is key.

So here’s how you can bring more color to your collection.

1. Know where you stand now 

Before you can move your books forward, you need to know what you have on your shelves, and what you don’t have. Whether you are diversifying a classroom library, or the one in your home, the Lee & Low survey can help you ask and answer important questions about the diversity of your current collection. 

2. Change what you buy 

When you’re looking for new books for your kids, explore the Diverse Book Finder, which contains over 1,300 children’s book titles with diversity elements. When you’re gifting a book, remember that it matters which texts you choose.

3. Look beyond the Caldecott

Often considered the most prestigious award given to picture books, the Caldecott honors between one and four books a year. But there are other awards out there that place greater emphasis on diversity. Check out the winners of the Coretta Scott King award, which honors African-American authors and illustrators. The Pura Belpre award honors books that celebrate Latinx culture and heritage. The Rainbow Project book list honors stories about LGBTQ characters. You can also look at winners of the Once Upon a World award, which honors books that focus on diversity, tolerance, and social justice. Check out a full list

4. Support smaller companies

Many libraries and schools depend on larger distribution companies to provide their books. That means that their collections are cultivated from a predetermined list of books. There’s far more out there. Take a look at smaller, local businesses that might be doing something different. 

5. Go new

So often, when we look for books for our children, we stick with what we knew as kids. Clifford the Big Red Dog, for instance, was a staple of my childhood. So were Owl Moon, Jumanji, and many others that featured almost exclusively white or animal characters. So when I go to find books for my kids now, I try to remember to see them through two lenses: one, the nostalgic lens of love for these books that I know from my childhood; and two, a modern, more careful lens, that allows me to see these texts in a more modern way. I still read Owl Moon. I still read Clifford. But I have also worked to add new books -- more modern books -- to the collection in my home.

Consider the Bharat Babies books, for instance. Not only do you add diversity with books like Super Satya Saves the Day or Amal’s Ramadan, but you have the added benefit of modern kids doing modern things, like going to school or camp while living within their unique cultures. 

6. Go old

It’s true, not all books stand the test of time, and some of the books from the ‘80s and ‘90s don’t meet the standards of diversity we are striving for. Plus, there were far fewer books by minority groups published then, there’s no question. According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, of the 2,500 children’s books published in 1985, only 18 were by Black authors and illustrators (in 2018, it was 202 out of 3,644, so we still have plenty of work to do). But some of the older books that DO still work are true masterpieces, worthy of a place in your collection. For instance, A Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, A Chair for My Mother by Vera B. Williams, or Heather Has Two Mommies by Lesléa Newman-- all are gorgeous books. 

7. Ask questions & expect more

When you go to your bookstore or library, ask for a picture book with a non-white protagonist. When I ask this question, I sometimes get blank stares. Once, a toy store clerk offered me one of the “How Do Dinosaurs..?” books by Jane Yolen, saying that “some of the parents in the background aren’t white.” Yikes. The purpose of asking these questions is not to shame store owners or librarians. It’s to change the way they see their own collections; it’s in hopes that they’ll ask these questions themselves when they buy new books. Go even further, and request that they carry books by certain authors, or ask them why they don’t. Not only will you change your own collections, but you’ll change what’s available to others.

8. Expand your own knowledge base

9. Keep at it

There’s a reason I say we can move to “diversifying” not “diversified.” The world is forever changing, expanding, and growing. Our libraries should grow and change too. So please don’t go through this list and then check the box saying “I diversified the books.” Instead, try to add these steps to your mentality as you approach your own reading lists; as you approach what you buy at the holidays; as you approach what you tell your children. 

One of the best ways we can support diversity is by making it a part of the conversation every day. The more you do these things, the more it will impact the way you see the world, and the way the children around you will see it. I truly believe that books change minds; by picking the right books, you can change minds, too.