The last few years have been a discouraging time for parents who care about their kids and their communities having access to diverse books. Groups of mostly White parents with names like “Moms For Liberty”— an ironic name for a group that advocates banning picture books for children— have been successfully campaigning to remove books from school libraries and curricula. Sometimes these books deal with historical atrocities like slavery or segregation, and other times they simply are about the lives of people of color. Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, said in an Education Week article that she was seeing “a real effort to stigmatize any works dealing with race in America or the experience of Black, Indigenous, or people of color under this rubric … of critical race theory, even though these works have nothing to do with critical race theory.”
Though these vocal groups are doing real damage, there are millions of parents who want their children to have access to books that depict characters of all races and backgrounds, show LGBTQ+ families, and teach children about American history. What can parents do — to ensure both that they have a wide variety of books on their own bookshelves, and to be part of pushing back against book banning efforts? Two moms in Maine have been working on this issue for years, and have created valuable resources for parents around the country who want to ensure that books featuring the full spectrum of human experience are on their kids’ bookshelves.
Why are diverse books important?
Dr. Krista Aronson, a professor of psychology and Associate Dean of Faculty at Bates College, first became interested in researching the role that books play in children’s understanding of the world when her eldest daughter was in first grade. That year, her daughter’s predominantly white school went through a redistricting in which it was merged with a school where most students were Somali. “I wasn’t opposed to it, but I watched keenly to see how the community would metabolize it,” she says. Her daughter, who is mixed race, tried to figure out her place in the newly merged school. One day, she came home and told her mother that the class had played a dodgeball game of “Somali against non-Somali” and that “no one was sure what team I was supposed to be on.” Her white classmates told her that she should be on the Somali team because of her darker skin, a moment that made her daughter feel othered and rejected.
In looking for ways to address this issue, Dr. Aronson came across the work of Rupert Brown and Lindsay Cameron, British psychologists who had researched the role that picture books could play in breaking down barriers between non-refugee and refugee children. Those researchers had found that simply reading picture books that showed friendships between refugee and non-refugee children could play a powerful role in combatting prejudice. Dr. Aronson applied for a grant to learn from those researchers, then planned a similar study to see how kids in the U.S. would respond to depictions of cross-racial friendships in picture books, specifically cross-racial friendships between Somali and non-Somali kids.
Right away, she ran into a problem: she and her team were unable to locate a single picture book in the United States that depicted a friendship between a Somali child and a child who was not Somali. But that didn’t stop her — she created one by working with the children’s book authors Ann Sibley O’Brien and Margy Burns Knight to write their own picture books. Dr. Aronson and her research team conducted a study of 500 children ages 6 to 9, half of whom were in a control group who were read a book that featured only white characters. The other half read a story in which Somali children and non-Somali students were playing together. Those books were read to children once a week over a six-week period, and the children were then asked a variety of questions. The study unequivocally found that children who had read the “cross group” book had numerous pro-social outcomes, including “positive changes to their interest and willingness to play across difference.”
At the end of the study, though, when she presented her findings to the administrators and educators at participating schools, Dr. Aronson felt like there was still more work to be done. “As I was doing dissemination to the teachers and parents about the findings, it felt good, but rather unsatisfying in its reach. This was information that in psychology journals behind pay walls, that only those with a particularly training would be able to read and digest and evaluate,” she says. Instead, with Sibley O’Brien, Dr. Aronson embarked on a much larger project: creating Diverse BookFinder, a catalog of all published books since 2002 that feature BIPOC characters.
How can parents use Diverse BookFinder?
Diverse BookFinder includes over 4,000 books with an impressive search feature. Readers can filter their search by numerous metrics, including by the race and ethnicity of characters, characters’ gender, and setting. Filters can be set for certain topics (for instance, books that feature LGBTQ families), and even for books that have won specific awards, such as the Coretta Scott King Book Award. The physical collection of books is housed at Bates College, but it includes an interlibrary loan feature, where anyone across the U.S. can request that a book in the catalog be sent to their local library. (So, if you’re a parent whose school library isn’t carrying certain titles, you can get them delivered to your local library.)
Dr. Aronson’s research has now expanded to include examining the content of picture books with diverse characters: not just who is depicted but how they are depicted. “We want to increase representation in terms of who is in the books, but what about the how? What about the importance of a wide-range of stories for each group? Diverse BookFinder provides tools for public libraries and school libraries to take stock of their collection as a whole in not only who is on their shelves but maybe the story that’s being told. What we’re trying to advocate for at Diverse Book Finder is balance — stories that depict the full expression of humanity, including that within BIPOC communities and the BIPOC experience.”
The Beginnings — a diverse book subscription service
Alli Harper, who lives in Maine with her wife and two children, found herself surprised when she became a parent at how hard it was to find books that, as she puts it, “affirmed the existence of families like mine.” Often, when she could find a children’s book that featured a two-mom family at all, they were often books where the two-mom families were ostracized or portrayed as somehow different from a family with a mom and a dad. “I felt very strongly with my little baby rocking in my arms, I did not want to read her a book about her family-type being bullied, or neighbors not liking us. She just needed ‘a gentle lullaby or something playful and age-appropriate,’” she tells Romper.
She was also surprised to notice how few books there were that included other types of diversity, including children of all different races and children with disabilities. “We wanted the books we owned to cultivate our values of equity, antiracism, inclusion, social justice,” she says. "So this might be embarrassing to admit, and naive, but we were surprised that publishers weren't creating these books in higher numbers given how many people are seeking this content."
When her daughter started reading chapter books, Harper and her wife felt a sense of real disappointment that her daughter had missed out on seeing herself in most picture books. “We had this deep sadness — oh my goodness, another child, another generation, just missed out on seeing themselves — and this is not getting that much better. We were about to have our second child, and we started thinking, ‘What could we do?’”
She started by publishing an article in the activist magazine The Bullhorn lamenting how hard it was to find books that were age-appropriate, particularly those that were “everyday books” versus “issue-oriented books.” Issue-oriented books were books about the child’s race, disability, or family composition, rather than having those aspects be incidental to the main plot. “Issue-oriented books are very important, and have a very important place,” Harper says. “But we also need bedtime stories, changing of the season stories, counting stories.”
That article led Harper to connect with other activists doing this work, and to subsequently doing hundreds of interviews and surveys of families, teachers, and librarians to answer a basic question: “What are you looking for in kids’ books that you’re having trouble finding?” Those surveys identified two structural problems: first, there weren’t enough high-quality diverse kids’ books; second, to the extent these books do exist, these books are often too hard to find for families, teachers, and librarians who are seeking them.
She realized that “a lot of these books are being produced by smaller presses or foreign presses that do not have the marketing and distribution resources that other presses have.” When these books don’t get marketing and distribution efforts, that can cause their sales to underperform, which then sent publishers the message that families don’t want those books or that there was risk in publishing them. Based on her research, Harper believed that this wasn’t true; families did want these books. But when publishers didn’t put the marketing behind them, those books weren’t always finding their audience.
How does Ourshelves work?
Harper launched the book subscription service Ourshelves in 2018, originally packaging books and sending them out of her living room. As their website states, Ourshelves mails its subscribers boxes of curated books featuring “racially and ethnically diverse, LGBTQ+, disabled, feminist characters and families” and “other under-represented identities in children’s book.” Subscribers can choose whether they want to receive a box with one, three, or five books; boxes are delivered every quarter. Harper works with a team of experts (including Dr. Aronson) who help curate their boxes, and the service delivers boxes of books four times a year for three different age ranges (0 to 2, 2 to 5, and 5 to 8). It has been steadily growing, and tripled in size during 2020, reaching families, teachers, and librarians in all 50 states.
In addition to getting diverse books into the hands of the families, teachers, librarians, and kids who want them, Harper hopes to make an impact on the structural issues in publishing that cause publishers to, as she puts it, “under-perceive the audience” for these books. She advocates directly with publishers, Harper says, to have more diversity in their offerings. “We’re not just advocating that they should create these books and then saying ‘thank you’ — then we’re there to buy the books, and send it to our families across the country. We’re not just saying, ‘will you please create it,’ we’re saying ‘and if you create it, we’ll be here to buy it in ever-growing numbers.’”
Harper has seen some progress in recent years, but still sees that the publishing industry has a long ways to go. “As far as seeing progress, I think there are definitely more diverse books coming out, there are a lot of people advocating in many different ways to help push that along. There are so many aspects of the system to address to create structural change. It’s who’s writing the book, illustrating the books, editing the books, who’s reviewing the book submissions, who are the agents, who decides which books get published — every step of the process needs to change. It needs to evolve. It’s happening slowly but surely, and yet when you look at the audience for these books, there should be a tremendous outpouring of abundance of diverse books — and we’re not anywhere near that. There’s still more work to do.”
How can you be part of the fight for diverse books?
The parents who oppose diverse books have been loud; those who support these books need to get loud, too. If the school is only hearing from the parents who want books banned, it will be easy for them to think that this is a representative view. And those groups of parents already exist, though they don’t get nearly the amount of press attention that the pro-book-banning groups do. In Tennessee, the group Chattanooga Moms for Social Justice has been part of fighting for diverse books and opposing Moms for Liberty since 2018. Parents who care about diverse books need to band together, go to school board meetings, and contact school administrators. If you have the financial means to, get a subscription to Ourshelves for your kids’ classroom or school library. Finally, whatever your background, don’t underestimate the power of using reading to introduce your child to other cultures and families through their reading. Dr. Aronson’s research suggests that reading diverse books to children may mean that tomorrow’s leaders will better recognize each other’s shared humanity.