For many of us, the books we read as children fundamentally formed the worlds and futures we imagined for ourselves. Growing up, the only stories I read featuring Asian Americans were In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Bette Bao Lord and The Baby-Sitters Club series by Ann M. Martin with Claudia Kishi. But unless it was a picture book about Chinese New Year, I never saw stories where I saw myself — and even the Chinese New Year stories weren’t about me or my life. Just my people’s customs. I certainly never imagined that people like me could be in modern stories set in the real world — let alone in fantasies and science fiction.
Of course, at the time, I didn’t know that it was hard to imagine a future where I was anything other than a doctor, lawyer, engineer, or accountant simply because I never saw it. I didn’t see Asian Americans reflected in the media, in stories, or in the news. I didn’t know that I could be an actor, a writer, a dancer, or anything that I wanted. I certainly didn’t know that the world was wide open to me. I’m certain I was not the only minority kid to feel this way.
Now that I’m a parent and want to foster a love of reading in my own children, I find myself wanting to gift my kids what I never had — worlds and stories full of people just like them — as well as totally different from them. The beauty of books is that they allow your child to experience different perspectives and realities as they are literally immersed into other people’s stories. The world is diverse. Why shouldn’t the books our new readers consume reflect that reality?
If you have a budding reader, here are 10 books that reflect just some of the many kinds of people in this world. (One of the tools you can use to find additional books featuring Black, Indigenous, and people of color, is Diverse Bookfinder.)
1. SkySisters by Jan Bourdeau Waboose, illustrated by Brian Deines
Written by First Nations writer Jan Bourdeau Waboose, SkySisters is about a pair of Ojibway sisters who traverse across the frozen country to catch a glimpse of the SkySpirits or the Northern Lights as they dance across the skies. Along the way, the sisters encounter three guardian spirits (a rabbit, deer, and coyote) and learn how to be still. The illustrations are beautiful and evoke a sense of wonder and the story is heartwarming. For more books written by First Nations authors, check out the First Nations Development Institute’s recommended reading list.
2. Tasunka: A Lakota Horse Legend by Donald F. Montileaux
Using the ledger-art style of the Lakota people, Donald F. Montileaux re-tells in English and Lakota the Lakota legend of Tasunka (the horse). According to legend, a young man discovers horses and the Lakota captures and tames them. But after growing too powerful and proud, the Great Spirit takes the horses away. To learn more about the stories written by and about the Oceti Sakowin people, the First Nations Development Institute compiled a reading list for younger audiences.
3. Mommy Sayang by Rosana Sullivan
Inspired by her mother’s childhood in Malaysia, Rosana Sullivan wrote Mommy Sayang about a girl and her mother in a Malaysian kampung (village). The story is about little girl Aleeya who longs to play again with her mother, who has a chronic illness. Sullivan is currently a director, storyboard artist, writer, and executive producer at Pixar Animation Studios.
4. Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah by Laurie Ann Thompson, illustrated by Sean Qualls
Based on a true story — Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah was born in Ghana with a severely deformed leg — this picture book depicts how Emmanuel hopped to school, learned how to ride a bike and play soccer, and how he became a disability rights activist. The book explains to new readers how eventually in 2001, Emmanuel rode 400 miles across Ghana to spread awareness about disabled people in his country. The story is simply and directly told with collage-style illustrations.
5. When Aidan Became a Brother by Kyle Lukoff, illustrated by Kaylani Juanita
This story chronicles the changes happening in biracial (South Asian and Black) Aidan’s life as he comes out as a transgender boy to his loving and supportive parents and as he becomes a big brother for the first time. The book is written with great care by transgender man Kyle Lukoff and illustrated with vibrancy and love by Kaylani Juanita.
6. Why Do I Have Two Mommies?: A Journey in Self Discovery by Janai Akerele
Angel wants to know why she has two mommies and goes on a journey to ask family and friends why to find the answer. Janai Akerele’s first book features not only LGBTQIA characters but also many people of color such as a Middle Eastern neighbor and an Asian best friend.
7. Mommy’s Khimar by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, illustrated by Ebony Glenn
This picture book features a young Muslim girl as she dresses up in her mother’s khimars (headscarves). With each different khimar she tries, the girl feels her mother’s love surround her. The joyful and sweet illustrations complement the exuberant story and new readers will enjoy the focus on love between a mother and daughter.
8. Under My Hijab by Hena Khan, illustrated by Aaliya Jaleel
A young girl sees how six different women in her life wear the hijab and imagines how she will wear hers in the future. The book is written in rhyme and deftly shows the varied and different modern Muslim women and girls living their daily lives.
9. Dreamers by Yuyi Morales
This Caldecott Honor and multi-award winning book by Yuyi Morales is a beautifully illustrated memoir of how she immigrated to the United States with her infant son, leaving behind almost everything and still bringing so many gifts to the U.S. The rich illustrations complement the lyrical prose and will be perfect for your young reader. There is also a Spanish language version called Soñadores.
10. The Many Colors of Harpreet Singh by Supriya Kelkar, illustrated by Alea Marley
This book follows Indian-American Harpreet, a Sikh boy who loves his patkas (turbans) and all the colors they come in. When his mother takes a job in a small town, Harpreet feels as if his world has gone grey and doesn’t know if he will ever feel like wearing happy colors again. The story and illustrations effectively convey how Harpreet feels like a stranger as he adjusts to his new world.
While these ten books are a good start to diversifying your budding reader’s bookshelf, don’t stop there. Keep going.
Find all the books by an author or illustrator you or your child love; check out similar books they recommend. Buy from bookstores owned by people of color. Borrow these books from your local library — and if they don’t have them in stock, request the library buy these books. Search online and follow suggested reading lists from blogs and organizations curated by the people the books are about.
Challenge your child and yourself to read only books featuring and centering people of color, women, and other marginalized voices for a month — then two or three months — and before you know it, a whole year will have passed and your worlds will have widened and deepened.
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