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  • Kim Bogren Owen

Diversity: Celebrating Our Nation's Strength in Picture Books

Did you grow up seeing others who are different from you? Like many people, I did not or thought I didn’t. I grew up in a middle-class, overwhelmingly white neighborhood, where I thought the only differences were the big ones, like my Jewish friends who didn't celebrate Christmas. But truth be told, we were different in many ways, from what we ate, to homework expectations, to how we celebrated holidays, to the make-up of our families, and those experiences all influenced how we became the unique individuals we are.

But it wasn't until I was an adult and after some hard, humbling lessons that I understood that we all have unique viewpoints, experiences, challenges and strengths. As a result, I have tried to parent my kids differently in how they understand diversity, in big and little things and how diversity is a strength of our nation and the world in general. Those different viewpoints, experiences, challenges, and strengths allow us to approach problems from different angles so we can find the best solution.

Books are one way that I have shown my children a world bigger than what I can show them in our daily lives and experiences. Books that include diversity also serve to show us ourselves and what we can be and are. Imagine never seeing yourself or only seeing a caricature of yourself in books. For many people, including minorities and girls, etc., that is a reality.

So, as Thanksgiving celebrations, along with its misrepresentations of Native American culture and the Pilgrims bringing this subject to the surface, keep the following suggestions in mind as you look for and read books to your child:

  1. Look for your own biases and accept that it is OK for others to be different in little and big ways. Talk with your child about how we all eat different foods, have different bedtimes, sleep in different kinds of beds, and live different lifestyles. If the difference is a choice, such as religion, it does not mean that you need to believe or live by that choice. It just means that you acknowledge there are those out there who do not live as you do. For a good read about different family, structures try Molly's Family by Nancy Garden.

  2. Look for books that show your race, culture, religion, and gender in a positive light. For example, if you have a girl who likes to play baseball, look for books, such as Mama Played Baseball by David A. Adler that show girls playing baseball.

  3. Look for books that actively dispel stereotypes, such as in the previous example. Girls play baseball, boys dance, African Americans are scientists, and Native Americans live modern lives. Part of my job in writing this blog is to help you find those books, but keep your eye out for them because I am always finding new ones. One great example of a book that does this is The Little Plant Doctor: A Story About George Washington Carver by Jean Marzollo.

  4. Look for books that portray people as fully human with all their oddities, absurdities, wonderfulness, and joy. Native Americans are often portrayed as savages, “out only for blood” or noble nature lovers, but like all of us, they are neither. They are just as human as any other people. Celebrate that in the books you read! It will help your child accept themselves, as well as others. Read Where the Shadbush Blooms by Carla Messinger.

  5. Look for books that expand your child's experiences and show them the larger world. If you live in the city read books about farms. Read books with characters from other races and cultures. It is important for children to see, not only themselves reflected in books, but others. And read many different books that include those experiences, races, or cultures so they don't form ideas based only on one book. This helps them to never develop bias and stereotypes in the first place. Read Jamaica Tag-Along by Juanita Havill or Hurry! by Jessie Haas.

  6. If you find a book that addresses a past wrong, don't sugarcoat it, don't freak out, and don't try to hide the book. Our cultures, religions, ancestors and nations all made mistakes and hurt others. When I told my Grandfather that I was studying Anthropology with a focus on Native American culture, my grandfather responded, "In my day, the only good Indian was a dead Indian." While I loved my grandfather dearly and am immensely grateful for all he did for my family and me, I find that view abhorrent and refuse to share that belief even if he is my ancestor. When I talk with my children about the history of our nation, I talk about his views with them and how we are working to rise above those types of attitudes. We can’t undo the harm of the past, but we can acknowledge it so it doesn't continue. Talking about the wrong does not mean you have to eliminate the good- both can and do exist in one person, culture, religion, or nation as they did in my wonderful grandfather. For a good read about slavery try A Place Called Freedom by Scott Russell Sanders.

  7. While reading to your child, acknowledge a stereotype when you come across it. Many, many children's books depict Native Americans as living in teepees regardless of where in the nation they lived. That is a stereotype of Native Americans. Talk about it as you read the book. For example, you can say, "Tribes that live in Alaska did not live in teepees. They would be more likely to live in a longhouse or igloo." When my son was around 6, we discovered the Tin-Tin series and loved it, but those books are rife with stereotypes and some downright racism. I used them as a starting point for discussions about stereotypes, racism, and the mistakes of the past. At 12, his teachers comment on how very socially aware he is compared to the other students, and in part, I credit those books and our discussions for that.

  8. Admit when you don't know about a culture, religion, or nation. The world is a big place and we are each small individuals so it is OK to not know everything. If you are reading a book that says that all Swedes eat herring in mustard sauce, acknowledge that you suspect they eat other foods and that there are probably Swedes who don't like herring, but that you don't really know. Research Swedish foods with your child so they have a complete picture but at a minimum question anything that is a blanket statement about a people, culture, religion, or nation. Read The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren.

  9. For more information explore the following websites:

This subject is touchy and personal. The main takeaway to teach your child is that we are all unique individuals who want to be accepted and treated with respect. Books can help teach your child that, as well as to develop empathy for others, to learn to think outside their box, and humanize others.

As always, feel free to share, with credit to Words Reflected and Kim Bogren Owen, on Facebook, your website, or in your newsletter. Add your own books that show diversity recommendations or thoughts about this subject in the comments.

(This blog uses the Amazon affiliate program so when you click on the title and purchase through Amazon, you are supporting us! If you don't purchase through these links, please, be sure to support your local, independent bookstore or find them at your library!)

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