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Mirrors & Windows: Diverse Approaches for Diverse Readers

by Heidi Estrin

*This article originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of Kids & Books.*

Diversity in children's literature has been an issue of concern for many years, but the overwhelming lack of diversity revealed by the Cooperative Children's Book Center study of 2013 titles kicked the discussion into high gear. There is a loud, clear call for more books portraying people of color and other minorities, including both stories that celebrate difference and stories that "normalize" diversity. The children's literature community is still struggling to come up with terms to describe books in which the characters' minority status is not center stage. Some call them "culturally generic" or "culturally neutral," some call them "casually diverse." Some doubt that neutrality can exist, since stories with diverse characters may have special resonance for insider readers. That said, there is wide agreement that children of all backgrounds will benefit from bonding with characters of diverse races, ethnicities, religions, physical and cognitive abilities, and family formations.

The list below features stories of diverse characters in universal situations. We see children learning, growing, solving problems, and loving their families. None of these books is "about" the group being portrayed, but all seek to be windows for outsiders and mirrors for insiders, while simply telling a good tale. Such books are easier to find for some groups than others (for example, there are many more "neutral" books about African Americans than about LGBTQ families), but even in the sparser categories, our list is only a starting point. These are examples of some of the newer titles available; hopefully, the selection will continue to expand.

African American

While there is certainly a need for more titles featuring Africans or African Americans, it is much easier to find black characters in culturally neutral stories than it is to find most other ethnicities. This may be due to the head start the category got with The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats (1962), or it may be because skin color is easy to portray illustratively without a need for it to necessarily affect the text. An excellent universal story with a black protagonist is Keisha Ann Can by Daniel Kirk (2008). Interestingly, Kirk reveals on his website that he originally envisioned the character as a mouse until his editors suggested using a human kindergartner. "Who can...?" questions lead readers through a busy, happy school day, always answered confidently with "Keisha Ann can!" while the flat gouache paintings show the activities of the enthusiastic African American girl and classmates from many cultures, ethnicities and backgrounds. The ending is even more universal, including readers in the story: "Who can learn,/and work,/and play,/and make her dreams/come true?/Keisha Ann can/do these things,/and YOU can do them, too!" Of the many other culturally neutral stories featuring African Americans, a few gems include the love letter to educators, My Teacher by James Ransome (2012), and Luke on the Loose by Harry Bliss (2009), a beginner's adventurous graphic novel.


Although Asian descent can be portrayed visually rather than through narrative, it seems rarer for stories with Asian protagonists to have a culturally neutral storyline, and it seems that many stories address issues of immigration. That said, a neutral standout title in this category is Redwoods by Jason Chin (2009). An Asian American boy finds a book about redwood trees and is swept into a lush watercolor fantasy of time travel, forest hiking, and tree climbing that conveys a great deal of information while it entertains. Other culturally neutral books with Asian American protagonists include the school story, Mom, It's My First Day of Kindergarten by Hyewon Yum (2012), and a tale of twins, Ling & Ting: Not Exactly the Same by Grace Lin (2010).


Because Latinos may or may not be visually distinctive, the use of Spanish vocabulary is the most definitive element of culturally neutral books in this category. A prime example is the family bonding tale, Papa and Me by Arthur Dorros (2008). A bilingual boy and his Spanish-speaking father glow in the surreal illustrations as they spend the day together making pancakes, having fun outside, and taking the bus to visit grandparents, with Spanish words woven seamlessly into the narrative. See also Mama and Me by Dorros (2011) for a parallel female story. Tooth on the Loose by Susan Middleton Elya (2008) is another story combining English and Spanish to tell of the universal frustration in waiting for a loose tooth to fall out, and the excitement of planning for a family birthday. Gracias by Pat Mora (2005) is a bilingual book of gratitude that also offers a possibly biracial family: a father with recognizably Latino looks and a mother with lighter skin and hair who may or may not be Latina herself.


Arnold Adoff first ushered in awareness of biracial families in the world of picture books with Black Is Brown Is Tan (1973). This celebratory title is still relevant today, but we now have more subtle options for portraying such families. Blackout by John Rocco (2011) uses crisp cartoon art to show a multiracial family (African American mom, white dad) rediscovering the simple pleasure of togetherness when the electricity goes out one summer night, with no mention made of race. Gender diversity is championed too, as the long-haired younger sibling is not clearly defined as male or female. Some portrayals of multiracial families don't even make it completely clear what races are involved. Mitchell's License (2011) and Mitchell Goes Bowling (2013) feature a multiracial family in which it appears that dad is white and mom may be Latina, in these hilarious tales of a rambunctious tot whose father is an endless source of entertainment. Lemonade in Winter by Emily Jenkins (2012) shows a white dad and a mom whose skin and hair imply African American or Indian heritage, in a story of an ill-conceived lemonade stand and the fun of counting coins.

American Indian

The website American Indians in Children's Literature explains that American Indians are not "people of color" or an ethnicity; they are a group of sovereign tribal nations with political status very different from that of cultural minorities in the United States. That said, this is another visually distinct population that could greatly benefit from literary mirrors and windows. Authentic portrayals of native cultures have been few and far between, and culturally neutral stories are particularly hard to find. A classic in this category is On Mother's Lap by Ann Herbert Scott (1972, reillustrated 1992); the family is Inuit, the universal theme is a celebration of maternal love. Wild Berries by Julie Flett (2014) offers earth-toned watercolor collage accompanying a bilingual tale in English and the Swampy Cree dialect about a boy and his grandmother picking blueberries. Culturally specific books about American Indians are still more prevalent than culturally neutral ones.

It is no accident that diverse books for children are becoming more readily available. Awareness of the need for such books is being raised by the Children's Book Council Diversity Committee, the We Need Diverse Books campaign, and many others in the industry. Parents, educators, and caregivers can do their part to dispel the myth that diverse books don't sell by purchasing these books, borrowing them from the library, letting library staff and booksellers know how pleased you are to see diverse books in their collections, reviewing diverse books on Amazon or Goodreads, and providing feedback directly to publishers by contacting them through their websites. Just as the books cited above seek to "normalize" diversity in the fictional realm, our collective efforts can "normalize" the real-world visibility and marketability of diverse books and their messages.

To find lists and articles inside NoveList with titles with characters of diverse races, ethnicities, religions, physical and cognitive abilities, and family formations:

  • Type "diversity" in the search boc
  • Click on Lists & Articles tab
  • Limit by desired audience

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Heidi Rabinowitz Estrin is Past President of the Association of Jewish Libraries, host of The Book of Life podcast, and Director of the Feldman Children's Library & Howard Computer Lab at Congregation B'nai Israel in Boca Raton, Florida.