How to Choose Diverse Books for Children: Tips and Techniques

Strategies to diversify children’s books. Lukupesä project. November 2023. Oodi.

‘Strategies to diversify children’s books’ was the interactive seminar organized by Kulttuurikeskus Ninho at Oodi in November 2023. The literature expert and reading mediator, Ivonne Carlos (MX) was the facilitator of this seminar, included in our project Lukupesä, which supports and develop plurilingual families’ reading practices in heritage languages, and develop skills for reading mediation as key tool for wellbeing. 

We did exercises focused on thinking about the selection of children’s literature, with three different dynamics, using books that Carlos had strategically selected. Then we reflected together about the books we chose. Following the seminar, we had the chance to explore numerous POC (People of Colour) authors in Finnish, thanks to the literature project POC-lukupiiri.  

This article shares some of the tips Carlos provided in the seminar for choosing diverse children’s books, along with questions to ponder when selecting books for children.  

Whether you are a reading mediator, work with children, are part of a library staff, or simply care about the books you read with your children, these tips are for you! 

Silent books as a tool 

Wordless books are incredible tools to spark children’s imagination and promote a dialogue between the reader and the child. They become especially powerful when reading to children who speak different languages or have special needs. As Ivonne Carlos explains, sometimes “Silent books are the noisiest”. 

Look into the author’s background  

Do you know if the writer knows about the books’ topic? When a writer publishes a book on a subject they know nothing about, or hasn’t done good research about the topic, it raises ethical concerns.  

For example, during the seminar, one of the criticisms that stood out about the books we reviewed was that one of those books did not have Braille printed properly, so it would be difficult for blind or visually impaired people to read it.

So, why publish a book in Braille when you do not have the full knowledge to do so, nor you take the time necessary to research thoroughly, and be able to publish a book that is respectful of the public it is intended for?

At the beginning of the seminar, participants asked themselves: How can I contribute to a more inclusive community?

“We usually think of the children when we read a book to them, but we’re not thinking of the authors, about what they are proposing with their book, from what context do they write and illustrate and how”.

Ivonne Carlos

That’s why taking the time to learn about the writers and illustrators we read “it’s a commitment to our children”. Carlos emphasizes that when writers lack knowledge about the topic, they occupy a space that doesn’t belong to them.  

Here are some questions you can ask yourself:  

  • Who is the writer? 
  • Does the writer represent the group?  
  • Does the writer understand or know the theme? 
  • Diversity beyond colour 

When it comes to diversity and books, choosing the topic is also important. Remember diversity in books goes beyond colour or migration themes. It also encompasses gender, ethnicity, able diversity, racism… It is not a good idea to assume or have expectations with black writers, writers of color, indigenous writers. Diversifying our book selection does not mean demanding and expecting BIPOC writers and illustrators to write only about migration, social injustice, or activism.

As Ivonne Carlos points out: “Diversifying the books is to bring more space for others, to bring more voices”.  

Consider the characters and their representation 

While topics are essential when thinking how to choose diverse books, the representation of characters is equally crucial. It’s not just about having black or indigenous characters; diversity is about how these characters are portrayed in the story.  It’s not just about having black or indigenous characters; diversity is about how these characters are portrayed in the story. 

We tend to think that a book is diverse only because when we open it, the first thing we see are characters of color, but diversity is not ONLY about putting these kind of characters on a book”, says Carlos. 

Ask yourself:

  • What do the characters represent?  
  • How are these characters represented in the story?  
  • Why should black or indigenous characters always be associated with migration? 
Some of the books showcased by POC-lukupiiri.

Also, remember that you can choose books with protagonists who are beings other than people, such as plants or even objects, and these do not necessarily have to be “humanized”. There are other living beings and wonderful species to which we should also dedicate more pages. 

Address uncomfortable topics 

“Some critics and thinkers of color say that talking about diversity is often taken as a euphemism to avoid addressing the issue of racism directly and it may be”, says Carlos. Choose diverse books that address various subjects and encourage open discussions with your children. 

We hope these tips taught you a bit more how to choose diverse books. Remember, you have the right to request public libraries to include more diverse books if you notice an underrepresentation of certain topics, authors, or voices. 

‘Strategies to Diversify Children’s Books’ was a production of Kulttuurikeskus Ninho ry, included in the Lukupesä Project, in collaboration with Oodi, and supported by TAIKE and Moniheli. 

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