Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Diverse Books for Kids

I am extremely proud of my latest children's book, Petunia, the Girl Who Was NOT a Princess. I remember reading advice from someone (sorry, I can't remember who) about how to handle criticism as a writer, and the advice was to be confident you'd written the best book you could. That is very good advice. Sure, criticism of Petunia will still hurt, but I feel that it is the best book I could write, and so I am happy about it, no matter what anyone else thinks.

Luckily, the early reviews are good! I've linked to the ones that have come in so far on my release post, and you can also always check the Amazon pagefor more reviews. (Also: the raffle in that release post is still active and is quite lightly subscribed... so enter and you have a high probability of winning. Yes, I'll ship prizes internationally.)

So far, I've written a lot about the theme of the book and how I hope it will encourage people to think twice about stereotyping little girls based on the sole metric of whether or not they like princesses and sparkles.

Today's post is about something different, that I think is perhaps even more important. It is the fact that Penelope, the princess in the story, is not white.

Petunia and Penelope. And a cat.

I am a big fan of the We Need Diverse Books movement, and am thrilled to see us talking about this, and addressing the fact that characters in kids books are overwhelmingly white. Here is a story I've linked to before that I think really illustrates why this matters so much. Kids are great at identifying with a wide range of characters (even ones that aren't human!) but representation still matters, and every kid should get to see him or herself reflected in books.

I think that we need more books by authors of color featuring all sorts of characters and tackling a wide range of themes. I am so glad to see the books that are available get more exposure and readers. I do not in anyway want to elbow in on that.

However, as a white author, I also do not think it is right for me to ignore the issue. When I sent my manuscript for Petunia off to the publisher, I included some illustration notes, and among those were requests for a diverse cast in the book. I think the illustrator did a wonderful job with this, and am thrilled with the outcome.

When I sent my manuscript in, I had no idea if this was a good approach or not- I just knew that it felt like literally the least I could do. I talked about this more (and linked to some good articles) in an old Weekend Reading post. I think that kids should read books that tackle themes of racism and the problematic aspects of our history head on. But I also think they should read books in which the princess is Black, or the superhero is Hispanic, or the "everyday kids" are Asian. I don't feel up to writing the first sort of book (at least not yet) but I want my books to be that second kind of book.

Enough about me. I of course hope you'll buy my book, but I also want to share some books by other authors that we love and that have added diversity to our bookshelves and library selections. Here they are:

When the Shadbush Blooms,by Carla Messinger and Susan Katz, illustrated by David Kanietakeron Fadden. This is a beautiful book about continuity in a Native American community, from the time of "my grandparents' grandparents" to now.

This Is the Rope: A Story from the Great Migration,by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by James Ransome. Another story of change and continuity, this time tracing all the ways a family has used a piece of rope over the years, from South Carolina to New York City.

The Secret Olivia Told Me,by N. Joy, illustrated by Nancy Devard. This is the story of how once you tell a secret, it quickly becomes not a secret at all.

Paper Horse,by Kim Xiong, translated by Clarissa Yu Shen, illustrated by Lei Xiong. In this story, a little boy is staying with his grandparents, and his parents get stuck in a snow storm and can't get back to him when planned. His grandmother cuts a paper horse for him, and he imagines that it brings him to his parents.

Kitchen God,by Kim Xiong and translated by Clarissa Yu Shen, is a cute little story that introduces the Chinese Kitchen God tradition.

Mama Zooms,by Jane Cowen-Fletcher is about a little kid whose mother uses a wheelchair and "zooms" them around various adventures.

And Tango Makes Three,by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, and illustrated by Henry Cole. The main characters in this book are penguins, but we found it to be a great way to help our kids think about that fact that some families have two daddies or two mommies.

Matariki,by Melanie Drewery and illustrated by Bruce Potter is a good introduction to the Maori New Year celebration. My US readers are unlikely to be able to find it, but I know I have a few readers in NZ, too!

I don't have as many recommendations for chapter books, but we really liked Sugar Plum Ballerinas: Plum Fantastic,by Whoopi Goldberg, and I think Pumpkin has decided she wants to read more in this series.

The We Need Diverse Books campaign also posted a list of recommendations for young kids, which I'll be using to help find more books, and Lee and Low Books is a publisher that focuses on diverse books.

And of course, I welcome your suggestions in the comments. Now, because I believe in author karma, I am going to go write some Amazon reviews for the books in this post!


  1. ah, thank you for all your recommendations. I'm spending a good portion of my evening on amazon adding titles to my wish list :)

  2. A friend gave us a picture book called Little Treasures: Endearments from Around the World. ( It's all about how families around the world love their children very much, and some of the things they call them, written in the languages' scripts where applicable, with transliterations and pronunciation guides. And translations, of course! (From what I know of the languages, they aren't perfect guides, but are decent. And kept very simple, as they should be in a picture book.)

    Starts with the more familiar to many in its audience, with endearments in English from the U.S., England, and Australia, and then moves around the world.

    The illustrations are highly stylized, and sometimes illustrate an idea behind an endearment more than a person -- like a sort of duckling-like picture for "ducky" in the England section -- so it doesn't *exactly* visualize diversity, per se? Somewhat. But it has a nice sampling of different major languages and countries. Just a taste for kids, it doesn't address immigrants at all. And a little more on the highly wordy side of the spectrum for picture books, but my 2yo will let me read it to her all the way through from time to time.

    My personal favorite from the book is a German word, Knuddelbaerchen (KNU-del-BEAR-shen), little huggy bear!

    1. Okay, yeah, I got it out for the "Knuddelbaerchen" reference, and now Toddler insists I read "all the pages," and is busily "reading" it to herself while I type this new comment. Making up her own words as she goes, which she's been doing with all her books lately.


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