Growing up I was addicted to reading. I had so many books that my idea of fun was playing library with my friends. I would hide books under my bathroom radiator so I could read while I was supposed to be getting ready for school in the morning and keep a keychain flashlight under my mattress so I could read books when I was supposed to be sleeping. My favorite days at school weren’t school trips — they were the days when we had the book fair. I was always grateful that my mom was a volunteer because I could get as many books as I wanted. I spent so much time at the library that I knew exactly where my favorite books were. I never went anywhere without a book.
I just really, really loved to read. Growing up, my favorite books were The Baby-Sitters Club series by Ann M. Martin and their spin-off series Little Sister. Stacey was my favorite babysitter because she was from New York City, like me, and I loved Claudia’s sense of style. I felt a certain kinship with Jessi because she was a ballerina, and I was a dancer, but that was about it. And even though I read a lot of books growing up, it was really rare to find a character that was black like me. Of course, there were books that centered around black stories, and I read those, but there weren’t that many contemporary commercial fiction books for kids that featured black characters alongside of white ones. I can only really remember the BSC, and the only black people in the series were Jessi’s family.
When I was young and writing just for fun, all of my characters looked like me because, well, I wanted to see myself reflected in my books.
Over the past few years, the publishing industry has realized that diversity was an issue they needed to address, especially in children’s literature. These are the most crucial years for the development of an avid reader; it is rare that you hear a voracious adult reader say that they “hated” to read as a kid. The publishing industry still has huge strides to make in the ways of diversity and representation in kid lit, but the push for people of color being able to tell their stories (the #ownvoices movement) gives children of color characters who look like them, in a way that many of us POC adults never had. This list is by no means comprehensive, but more of a jumping-off point to go out and find more diverse books for your kid’s bookshelf.
Cleo Edison Oliver, Playground Millionaire by Sundee T. Frazier
Cleopatra Edison Oliver fancies herself an entrepreneur. When a class assignment for a “passion project” comes up, Cleo turns it into a new tooth-pulling business. In addition to her business and all of the challenges she faces, she is also on a search for her biological parents.
Hunters of Chaos by Crystal Velasquez
When Ana gets accepted to a fancy new boarding school, her average life is turned upside down. She, along with three other girls in her school, discover they have magical powers that allow them to fight the spirits lurking in ancient artifacts under their school.
In A Village by the Sea by Muon Van and April Chu
This picture book written in a lyrical style tells the story of missing home when you leave. During the course of the book, there are many diverse cultures illustrated, which creates powerful imagery and gives a good talking point for places that don’t look like where you come from.
The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste
Corinne La Mer isn’t afraid of jumbies. They’re just make-believe. But when she sees a mysterious pair of yellow eyes in the forbidden forest, she begins to wonder. When a beautiful stranger shows up, Corinne knows that something is in the air. When it is revealed that the beautiful stranger Severine wants to claim the island for the jumbies, Corinne must summon up courage and magic that she didn’t know she had.
The Gauntlet by Karuna Razi
In this thrilling novel modeled after the movie Jumanji, 12-year-old Farah and her friends get sucked into a board game called The Gauntlet of Blood and Sand. Once they’re in the game, they have to try to defeat it to save the children trapped inside of the game, including her baby brother Ahmed.
The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson
Clover and Anna live on opposite sides of a segregated town, separated by a fence. Clover’s mom warns of crossing the fence into the white side of town, but in spite of this, the two girls develop a friendship that transcends the fence.
Two Naomis by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich & Audrey Vernick
Two girls, each named Naomi, have very different lives. But when Naomi Marie’s mom and Naomi Edith’s dad get serious about dating, the girls are forced to come together when all they want to do is continue the way life was before. Their parents push them into attending a class together where they are going to have to work together and maybe learn something along the way.
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
A young girl named Minli lives in a rundown hut with her parents in a valley. Her father loves to tell her old folktales of the Jade Dragon and the Old Man on the Moon, who knows the answers to all of life’s questions. Minli sets off to find the Old Man on the Moon to try to help change her family’s fortune and encounters a cast of interesting characters along her journey.
Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks & Gita Varadarajan
Joe and Ravi are from very different backgrounds: Joe has lived in the same town his entire life, but Ravi has just moved to America from India. All of Joe’s friends have moved away, leaving him lonely. Ravi has no friends. Over the course of a week, they come together to defeat the school bully and realize that maybe they have some things in common too.
Moving Target by Christina Diaz Gonzalez
Cassie Arroyo, is an American student in Rome, where her father is an art history professor. When someone tries to kill her father, she sets off to defend her father and learns that she is a part of an ancient bloodline and that the fate of her family — and the world — rests on her shoulders.
Jabari Jumps by Gaia Cornwall
Jabari has finished his swim lessons and passed his swim test, so obviously he is ready to jump off the diving board. He’s not scared; he’s a great jumper! When he becomes a little hesitant, it’s only natural to take a minute to get ready. He must learn to face his fears before he can jump.
Again, there are still great strides to be made in the quest for diversity in children’s literature. Buying them, requesting them at your local library, donating them to your child’s school, and talking about them with fellow parents are all great ways to show the publishing world that this is far more than a trend. Representation matters, and this is something they need to wise up about. In our ever-changing word, and in these dark times politically, we need to show kids that their stories matter, and that they matter too.
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