How to select diverse and inclusive books and picture books

The challenge is to make use of children’s curiosity in order to expand their ability to read the world from different perspectives and empathize with others. Whether you are a publisher, a teacher, a librarian, a parent or a reviewer, selecting books for children is never a neutral activity. But how do you determine which books can be considered ‘diverse’? And how can you use them in your interaction with children? Here are some analytical tools to help you reflect on how to make a diverse selection. We have based our tips on the article ‘10 Quick Ways to Analyze Children’s Books For Racism and Sexism’ (Derman-Sparks and the Anti-Bias Curriculum Task Force, 1989) and ‘Addressing Disability as a Part of Diversity’ (Nasatyr and Horn, 2003).

Illustrations: What characters are presented in the illustrations? Do they include minority groups? Do these groups look stereotypically alike, or are they represented as individuals with distinctive features? Do they look like privileged groups (e.g. a Black character that looks like a white person, except for being darker skinned)?

Storyline: When a minority group is included in the storyline, does a minority person need to adhere to ‘white’ or ‘male’ behavioural standards in order to get ahead? Are people with disabilities, non-white groups or other minorities considered a problem? Does the storyline encourage passive acceptance or active resistance? How is this problem solved? Is there a hero? Who is the hero?

Lifestyles: Are lifestyles other than those of white middle-class people represented through text and image? If so, do they go beyond oversimplification and offer genuine insights into other lifestyles? Is the minority group in question depicted as ‘different’? Are negative value judgments implied?

Characters and relationships: Are minorities or marginalized groups included in the story? Are they presented as active rather than passive recipients of what privileged groups do? Are white/middle-class/male/heterosexual characters shown as having all the power, taking the lead and making all the important decisions? In descriptions of romantic relationships, are only heterosexuals depicted? Is a character with disabilities presented in a supportive role?

Loaded words: Look for biased language and adjectives that exclude or ridicule minorities. Examples of loaded adjectives are ‘slow’, ‘retarded’ or ‘special’ for people with disabilities, ‘savage’ and ‘primitive’ for non-white groups, and ‘lazy’ or ‘humble’ for working-class characters.

Context: Take a look at the time when a book was first published. Many folk tales and classics were written in a different context and present biased elements. It may be inappropriate to evaluate classical literature according to the above guidelines. If we consider it important to present these narratives to children because they are part of our cultural heritage, it is essential to think of possible creative interventions that can promote a critical reading of them, so that these books too can work as an interesting resource to help children understand the unequal world we are living in. Read The literary canon and diversity: an impossible combination? for more ideas and examples.

Authorship: An examination of the author’s perspective and background may also be an important tool. All authors write from within a cultural as well as personal context. Analyse the biographical material on the jacket flap or at the back of the book. Look for qualities that the author or illustrator may have that would help them understand minorities’ perspectives.

Complex reality: Some books that present representations of minority groups tend to be rejected because they broach ‘difficult topics’. There is a common belief that we need to protect children from the outside world. Traditional ideas about childhood make us think of children as innocent and incapable of understanding complex realities. Yet it’s never too early to arm them with awareness and analytical tools that enable them to look critically at our complex reality. Children ask ‘why?’ about everything. Many research projects have shown that children see and interpret differences, for example in skin colour, from a very early age. One of the most famous examples in this respect is the ‘Doll test’, which was designed in the 1940s and has been repeated on many occasions since:

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