How to Choose Diverse and Culturally Responsive Books for Your Classroom and Reading Lists

By: | 02/24/2021
Category: Instruction

Let's start with a quick exercise.

Look at the books on your classroom bookshelves. Are the authors mostly White?

Are the characters mostly White?

If you answered “yes” to either question, it's time to diversify your bookshelf. If you answered “no,” that's great. Keep diversifying your book selections!

Why Diversify?

Whether you're an educator, librarian, or parent, it’s incredibly important that you help expose the children in your life to books with characters of rich, varied identities and experiences. Books can be windows into other worlds and different lives. They can positively challenge children's ideas and help them build a healthy awareness of themselves and the world.

As windows, books expose readers to lives and realities different from their own. When books serve as mirrors, they reflect children’s identities or experiences back at them, and by doing so, the books affirm children's identities and experiences and send them the implicit message that they matter.

For example, the middle-grade novel Stand Up, Yumi Chung! by Jessica Kim may serve as a mirror for Korean-American girls who—like the novel’s main character, Yumi Chung—are navigating their family's Korean culture and the mainstream (White) culture. For readers who are not Korean American, this title can serve as a window because it gives them the chance to experience the world with a character whose life is very different from their own. Through story and imagination, readers learn about Yumi Chung’s culture, language, and unique experiences.

Representation Matters

According to research on 2018 publishing statistics conducted by the Cooperative Children's Book Center (CCBC), 50 percent of children’s books featured White characters. A mere 10 percent of books portrayed African/African-American characters; seven percent depicted Asian–Pacific Islander/Asian–Pacific American characters; only five percent featured Latino characters; and a scant one percent portrayed American-Indian/First Nations characters. Here's the percentage that may make you really cringe, though: 27 percent of children’s books published in 2018 featured animals as the main characters. No, you didn't read that wrong. In fact, the percentage of animals as characters in books was greater than the other groups combined.

This is a serious problem not only for children who are Black, Indigenous, and/or Asian, but also for White children, too. Children who do not see themselves reflected in the books they read or see negative depictions of their social and personal identities, may feel invisible or devalued. At the same time, White children who live in mostly homogeneous communities may not be exposed to the equally valuable cultures and experiences of other children. These White children, then, may have a distorted view of the world around them.

But educators, families, libraries—and yes, even reading program creators—can help fix the problem.

Infographic showing diversity in children's books.

Huyck, David and Sarah Park Dahlen. (2019 June 19). Diversity in Children’s Books 2018. blog. Created in consultation with Edith Campbell, Molly Beth Griffin, K. T. Horning, Debbie Reese, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, and Madeline Tyner, with statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison: Retrieved from Copyright © 2019. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0 license).

Suggested Reading: Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors

A Focus on Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Texts

Last winter, the Curriculum Associates’ print product team recruited me, a senior editor working in digital instruction, to assist them in finding, choosing, and developing reading passages for our new print reading program, Magnetic Reading. Incorporating Dr. Sharroky Hollie's culturally and linguistically responsive (CLR) pedagogical principles and high-quality, engaging CLR texts into Magnetic Reading was a top priority.

CLR texts positively depict cultural identities, such as those based on age, gender, ethnicity, nationality, socioeconomic background, and disability. When writing from their own culture and backgrounds, writers can draw from personal experiences to determine the personalities, interactions, and beliefs that determine a character’s decisions and drive the plot. Writing characters from backgrounds that are not the same as the writer’s own culture requires research and assistance from those who have lived the experiences depicted in the book.

In addition to prioritizing CLR texts, I sought OwnVoices texts. You might wonder: What's the difference between the two? OwnVoices texts fall under the umbrella of CLR texts. Whereas any writer can craft an informational or literary text that is culturally authentic—even if the culture represented is different from their own—an OwnVoices writer shares their characters' identities. The characters' identities and experiences are authentic because they are an extension of the author's identity and experiences. OwnVoices texts enable readers to learn about and connect to culturally authentic perspectives—perhaps different than their own—while amplifying the voices of individuals from marginalized or underrepresented groups.

So, with the particular focus of OwnVoices texts in mind, I, as well as other editors on my team, set off to search for high-quality, engaging excerpts from published books. I engaged in a reading marathon, combing through curated lists of culturally authentic, award-winning books. Over six months, I read about 50 middle-grade books, most of which had been published in the last few years. Equipped with pads and pads of sticky notes, I identified many possible OwnVoices excerpts to present to the rest of the Magnetic Reading passage team for review.

The Criteria

As I was finalizing my list of excerpts, I used the five Cs below to determine which texts I would ultimately present to my team.

You can also use my criteria to help you select titles for your classroom, school library, or summer reading, and recommend reading lists you give to students and families looking for excellent free-time reading.

Choose engaging texts.

Your selections should include unique perspectives that are relevant and interesting to children. Consider whether an informational topic will pique children's curiosity and push them to learn more about it. As for fiction, ask yourself whether the characters, events, or problems in the books you’re evaluating would make children laugh, prompt them to think deeply, or help them see the world—and the people in it—in a new way.

Concentrate on culturally authentic stories.

Expose children to different cultures, experiences, and identities by choosing CLR (especially OwnVoices) texts. Avoid texts that tokenize diverse characters. (“Token” characters lack cultural depth and are merely in the text for diversity points.)

Consult experts.

Reach out to educators, librarians, and thought leaders for their input on which books to share with children. Early in my search, I contacted Aundrea Tabbs-Smith, an educational consultant who helps educators diversify their bookshelves. Aundrea gave me suggestions for high-quality, engaging books by diverse authors and explained why it’s important to expose children to joyful stories about their cultural identities.

Celebrate joy.

Speaking of joy . . . children should be able to see themselves positively portrayed in the books they read. This is especially important for Black, Latino, and LGBTQIA+ children, whose identities are often marginalized by others. Joyful books remind children of all identities that their happiness and well-being matter.

Collect a variety of genres and text types.

Children need the opportunity to explore different genres and text types so they can learn and appreciate the characteristics of each as they develop their own preferences.

Reading Recommendations

I can’t help myself. I just have to recommend three standout children’s book titles that are excerpted in Magnetic Reading. Make sure your school or local library has them on the shelves. Your students will want to read the rest of the books after they read the passages.

Any Day with You by Mae Respicio. Twelve-year-old Kaia loves her easygoing, cheerful great-grandfather, Tatang, who lives with her in California. She relishes the time they spend together, especially their sunset strolls along the beach. But when Tatang tells Kaia and the rest of her family the shocking news that he's decided to return home to the Philippines, Kaia is devastated. What can she do to convince her beloved Tatang to stay?

Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks by Jason Reynolds. National Book Award finalist Jason Reynolds gifts readers with 10 poignant vignettes of different students as they leave school grounds for the day. Here are a couple of my favorites. In "Five Things Easier to Do Than Simeon's and Kenzi's Secret Handshake," two best friends show how liberating and enriching the joy of true, deep friendship can be. In "Satchmo's Master Plan," a boy with a severe fear of dogs plans an alternative (and potentially lifesaving) route home to stay clear of the new dog on the block.

Merci Suárez Changes Gears by Meg Medina. In this Newbury Medal award-winning novel, a lot is happening in Merci's world. Merci has started sixth grade and must perform community service as part of her scholarship for her Palm Beach area private school. As Merci’s adjusting to middle school, she’s also grappling with worrisome changes she sees in Lolo, her abuelo (grandfather). Juggling the responsibilities of family and school—as well as a new friend—how will Merci ever get through the year?

Magnetic Reading

Magnetic Reading is designed for whole-class use and contains lessons with robust, engaging, and research-based instruction. Lessons include a variety of literary and informational texts so that students can practice the full range of skills defined in the Common Core State Standards.

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