Diversity In Children's Books Isn't Radical
While, once upon a time, board books and early picture books taught things like colors, and numbers, and daily vocabulary, there are now meatier messages and lessons to be had within the cardboard pages of the latest board books. This trend was noted recently in an article in The Atlantic, which discusses the “radicalization of children’s picture books.” While the article didn’t say that these books are harmful or unneeded, it certainly didn’t acknowledge the very real place these books have in the homes of today’s families. Rather, the author of the article, Joe Pinsker, worried, “Some of the messages in politically oriented books, though, might be going over kids’ heads.” He goes on to cite a psychologist's input on kids’ moral development, saying that it’s unlikely that kids under 5 grasp the concept of empathy.
Sure, infants through toddlers are not going to understand all the themes in these books, which range from immigration to civic action to feminism, but does that mean it’s not worth reading them books that deal with these topics? Not at all.
First off, the benefits of reading extend so much further than teaching the content of the books. In the earliest days, babies benefit from hearing language, having social interactions that come with reading, and from learning to enjoy books. (Watch any 1-year-old reader, and notice how they seem to know exactly what to do with a book. They flip from page to page, open and close it, and enjoy looking at all the book holds.) Further, researcher Lisa L. Scott found that infants who were read picture books with individually named characters paid better attention, tracked through eye movements, when they revisited the book three months later, compared with a control group. “Very young infants are able to use labels to learn about the world around them and that shared book reading is an effective tool for supporting development in the first year of life,” she concluded in an article for The Week.
The best books for families with young kids are the ones that the parents want to read to their children and the ones that appeal visually or with fun and varied rhythm. And now, families can find books that tick these boxes in lots of genres, including “woke” baby books, which is becoming an entire genre in its own right.
It’s true that with picture books, the targeted audience (babies to young school-age kids) are not the ones who do the purchasing of books or make the final decision at library checkout lines, but the truth is, these books benefit kids and their caregivers.
The book is not meant to be radical or didactic — it was written, illustrated, and designed to show how basic the concepts of equality, kindness, and respect are
Julie Merberg, the author of a new board book, My First Book Of Feminism (For Boys), notes this as she speaks with me by email. “All of our board books are designed to engage children AND their parents, since parents are the readers, and the reading of favorite board books to little ones happens over and over again,” she writes.
Just as it’s never too early to talk about feminism, it’s never too late, either, and for parents who only learned about feminism later in their life (like I did), reading these books can inform parents about topics that are coming more to the forefront. Books like Introducing Teddy let parents start thinking about the discussions that are to come. Nothing solidifies my beliefs quite like imparting wisdom to my children. And I am very aware that sometimes these woke picture books, put into simple and beautiful words, the kinds of values I want to instill.
Merberg was inspired both by her optimism in this generation and by the sexism she saw ramping up ever since November 2016. “As the mother of four boys, I was actually starting to feel optimistic that their generation could be the one to fully embrace equality,” she says.
The sexism she sees today renewed her purpose in writing books on these topics. Despite the apparent lessons included in her book, she tells Romper, “The book is not meant to be radical or didactic — it was written, illustrated, and designed to show how basic the concepts of equality, kindness, and respect are.”
Is it ever too early to start teaching about kindness?
Author and illustrator Loryn Brantz also writes "woke" baby books. Her sassy, feminist baby girl appears in her books Feminist Baby, and Feminist Baby Finds Her Voice. Her youngest readers are drawn to the colorful illustrations, which depict a sassy and outspoken baby, bravely expressing herself. Brantz seeks to entertain first and inform second, explaining, “The colors captivate [the youngest readers] and the art makes them giggle. My hope is that if they have this positive association with feminism early on, it will continue into adulthood.”
Since we already hope our children make positive connections to books, woke books add a decided bonus of associating kindness, fairness, and all things feminism with books, and with the time spent with their caregivers during reading times.
There are so many important topics to expose your children to early on: racial inclusion, body positivity, a sense of bodily autonomy, the list goes on.
Whether or not you couch it as “feminism,” representation of female heroes and role models, and discussions about “fairness” are relevant as soon as kids of any gender begin to be pigeon-holed. They're relevant as soon as kids realize things aren’t always fair. Diversity is relevant when they grow older and begin to grasp politics. Pinsker’s article pointed out that the younger kids can’t truly grasp the nuances in these topics, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn't start to talk to them about these things.
As Brantz says, “There are so many important topics to expose your children to early on: racial inclusion, body positivity, a sense of bodily autonomy, the list goes on — finding simplified ways to talk to your children about complex topics will prep them to not be overwhelmed by these concepts when they confront them later on in life.”
Similarly, Mahogany L. Browne, a poet and artistic director, sees a place for woke kids’ books. In fact, her book Woke Baby finds the parallels between infants and activists. Her book is an inspiring look at who a baby might grow up to be.
“Studies show that reading to babies inform them of the world around them,” she tells Romper. “And while they may not understand all the nuances of being ‘woke’ or ‘compassionate,’ these books allow the foundation to be built. Like lullabies teach memory keeping, harmony, and teamwork — these children’s books can fortify the foundation of their wheelhouse — and why on earth would we miss the chance to sturdy our children with the emotional building blocks of becoming an culturally aware global citizen?”
I love the idea that reading to children, even babies, can be many things. It can be bonding time, literacy time, rhyming time, art appreciation time, and learning time. I often feel that choosing a book for my kids is like making a wish for their future. What do I wish for them? Sometimes it is something simple. I want them to love colors. I want them to have their eyes open. I want them to listen. But often, I’m reaching for deeper things. I want them to love themselves. I want them to overcome challenges. I want them be kind. I want them stand up for what’s right. I want them to be kind to the Earth.
My children may not know where Somalia is, they might not know the word 'refugee,' but they are surely benefitting from seeing the diverse characters across the pages.
To choose a book for your baby is a wish for their future. And in this day and age where it’s easy to find examples of violence and sexism and all manners of injustice, I hope it’s easy for kids to find examples of peace and equality.
I’m happily filling my bookshelves with gorgeous picture books that have a message. It Takes A Village by Hillary Rodham Clinton makes the wish that we can all come together for the good of our community. Yes, my child might be most interested in seeing how the playground the characters are building turns out, but they are hearing words like “sharing” and “kindness.” They are developing a compassionate vocabulary.
On the topic of compassion, veteran children’s author Mem Fox just published a book called I’m An Immigrant, Too. As an Australian, Fox acknowledges the huge part immigration has had on the wide and varied cultures represented there. My children may not know where Somalia is, they might not know the word “refugee,” but they are surely benefitting from seeing the diverse characters across the pages. I’m sure they are catching the warm tone of the text.
I hope my children take instruction from Dave Eggers’ What Can A Citizen Do. I hope they know they are part of a community, that they can make a difference by planting a tree and standing up for what’s right. This book invites active participation in society and politics, but it is also just a beautifully illustrated book. Illustrator Shawn Harris brings so much life and emotion and diversity to Egger’s message, which tells children to care and to not be silent. I think we could all use these reminders.
I want books that reach for these ideals, but I also want books that do reflect our world and teach them the reality of things. I want every kid to be able to find someone who looks like them and talks like them within the pages of a book. However, as important as this kind of diversity and representation is, I would question the idea that diverse books were somehow “progressive” or “liberal.”
Librarian Erinn Salge wrote a beautiful piece for LitHub that decried efforts to write off books that are simply diverse as "political." As she points out, it shouldn’t be revolutionary for there to be queer characters or characters of color or characters with disabilities. More and more, today’s parents are hoping that that becomes the norm.
More and more, today’s parents are putting time and care into the books they are choosing for their children. I personally love that I have so many choices. I can still grab an Eric Carle book or a Dr. Seuss book. But now I also have fierce baby characters who care about the world in which they are growing up. At a time when generosity, kindness, and equality feel revolutionary, yeah, I guess I want my kids to have radical books.