Friday, May 6, 2016

How to Find High-Quality Diverse Literature for Children

Last month I launched #DiverseKidLit in partnership with several other bloggers. Our goal is to promote the reading and writing of children's books that feature diverse characters, and it has been so encouraging to see so many different bloggers and book recommendations!

One really important question has been raised in discussion and comments: how do we find and evaluate high-quality diverse literature?

To that end, I have put together a series of questions to consider when seeking or evaluating books. I would love for this to become an evolving discussion and to hear thoughts from others about how to find and celebrate the best that diverse literature has to offer!

Questions to Ask when Finding or Evaluating High-Quality Diverse Literature

What is the author's background?

One of the first things I want to know when evaluating a diverse book is more information about the author's background and experience. What qualifications do they have related to the subject of their book and its characters? Are they a member of the country / culture / ethnic group / etc. depicted in the story?

Often a cursory glance at the author's bio on the book flap can give you a pretty good starting point. Some potential red flags for me include

  • an author writing about another country with no mention of their connections / travel / references in that country
  • an author writing about a culture or ethnic group that is not their own with no mention of their connections / travel / references with that group
  • an author writing a nonfiction book with little or no backmatter (i.e. no bibliography, no author's note with more information)
  • an author writing a folktale from another country or culture, especially if there is no mention of consultation or discussion with members of that country or culture

How are the characters portrayed? Do they hew closely to standard stereotypes or are the characters balanced and well-rounded?

High-quality diverse literature features characters that are interesting, three-dimensional. Even children quickly spot "cardboard characters" - characters that have only one quality or are presented in a simplistic fashion. Pay attention to the characters and their portrayal in a story. They should have more going on for them than just the fact that they are diverse.

(For example, in my review of Chandra's Light: a story from Nepal, I shared my concern that the book was clearly written as a vehicle to tell kids about how solar lights change lives, and the main point of the characters in the books seemed to be to stand there and be poor.)

Has this book won any awards?

Awards are a great way of finding books that others consider to be high quality. However, not all awards are created equally. When it comes to diverse literature, it is worth paying attention to awards focused on the specific type of diversity in the book. I have been curating a lengthy list of Diverse Book Awards if you want examples and recommendations.

An Example

I don't like to bad-mouth books, but I do tend to be very honest in my reading and reviews. Some books I simply never post about, while with others, I might raise some questions or concerns that I have. I thought it might be helpful to walk you through a recent encounter I had with an author and her books that raised some red flags for me.

As part of World Read Aloud Day, many authors offer free Skype visits to classrooms. I was a bit late signing up, but I was able to request a talk with Alma Fullerton, whose name I recognized from having written some picture books about Africa that I hadn't yet read. (We were studying Africa at the time.) I quickly requested her three Africa picture books from the library.

Though praised for their "sparse language," I found the stories themselves disappointing. Community Soup is an odd mix of half a Kenya "Mary Had a Little Lamb" parody and half "hey there's a goat in our garden, and I think this is supposed to be comical." A Good Trade is about a Ugandan boy who sees the aid worker truck arriving and brings them a flower as thanks for getting new shoes. In A Cloud of Dust is about a truckload of bikes arriving in Tanzania and the main character doesn't get one but then she shares someone else's, the end.

My "red flags" included

  • books whose characters are overly simplistic or seemed to offer nothing beyond a basic stereotype (This is a poor kid. Look, he carries water on his head. Now he has shoes, yay.)
  • no author's notes with information about the countries or the author's connections (In A Cloud of Dust is the only one with an author's note, which is about organizations that donate bikes to Africa, nothing about the author)
  • an author with no stated background or experience with the country (Alma Fullerton is Canadian, and none of her biographies mention connections to Africa) 
Our Skype visit revealed what I suspected: she has never been to Africa and has no personal experience with any of the countries depicted in the books. In an egregious misstatement, she also referred to "the country of Africa" during our conversation. (She did immediately correct to "the continent of Africa," but even my third graders noticed that one.)

I want to share diverse books with my students that present authentic, nuanced stories about people and places. In my opinion, these books reveal just surface ideas based on minimal research and simplistic conceptions about "Africa." Someone who has never lived in or even visited a country is going to have a hard time going beyond the basics to share something deep or authentic.

On the other hand, the books have been recognized with various awards. (Read between the lines, however, and many of the awards are local or Canada-specific awards.) I am not bringing these books up to say that they are "bad" books - there is nothing intentional hateful or negative or wrong in them, but I am saying that we should hold diverse books up to a high standard and, for me, these books do not meet expectations.

A final note...

Many of these questions and thoughts above were written with the idea of ethnic or cultural diversity in mind, but another point of the #DiverseKidLit meme is to promote the many, many axes of diversity within our books and our communities. We should hold books about LGBTQ characters or characters with special needs or socioeconomically-diverse characters up to the same scrutiny and should celebrate great examples of these books too. We hope you'll join us!

Please share your thoughts or additional questions to consider in the comments below.


Share your posts with #DiverseKidLit


  1. This post is a keeper and should be a "must read" for reviewers, authors, and those who share books with children. I appreciate your candor and honesty. I only review books that I believe are well written and promote diversity without using stereotypes.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Claire! I'm glad you felt that this added to the conversation.

  2. I agree that nuance is so important. A story being set in "Africa" is a pet peeve of mine. There's no other region of the world where we talk in broad strokes about continents rather than countries or particular cultures.
    I admit to being biased, as I am a Barefoot Books Ambassador, but I find your characterization of the Deena and Chandra in Chandra's Magic Light to be somewhat unfair. I agree that the characters in the story could be more developed (perhaps the author was trying to do a bit too much in the story with explaining what solar tukis are and how they matter.) Rather than finding the girls to be characters who just "stand there and are poor," I actually was drawn to their agency and compassion in figuring out a way to help their baby brother.

    1. Thank you for sharing, Rebekah, and I appreciate your thoughts about the girls in Chandra's Magic Light. If you read my longer review, my critique is basically what you mentioned in your parenthesis - that their was too much going on in the story. Compared to characters in books like Four Feet, Two Sandals, I wish more had been done with Chandra's Magic Light.

  3. Thank you for such clear and specific guidelines. Diverse books should indeed be held to the same high standard of any books we would want to give to children and young adults.

  4. I do a lot of research on this subject, so it was delightful to read your perspective. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks, Ricki! I'd love to hear your perspective if there are other big ideas/questions to concern that I've overlooked.

  5. I do a lot of research on this subject, so it was delightful to read your perspective. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Thanks so much for sharing your perspective on this! I really appreciate your thoughts on this, particularly the idea of well-rounded characters. It frustrates me to no end when I see books with flat characters who seem to just be there to serve as vehicles for specific agendas. You bring up such great, specific characteristics to look for -- thanks!

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about this too, Beth!

  7. To write about a country or culture you've never even visited, let alone spent time getting to known and understand, seems so unfair - I can't imagine someone writing about my hometown without ever having visited it, or visiting one part of my country and then assuming that they know everything about the country as a whole! We would never make those kinds of broad assumptions about our own hometowns or countries, yet all too often those assumptions are made about other peoples homes, which can be so hurtful and even harmful.

    1. Excellent point, Jane. I had my 3rd graders think about stereotypes this year by comparing post cards of WI to their own experiences. Eye opening for them.

  8. I agree with you - for me the key words (in a nutshell!) are integrity, authenticity and empathy...

    I am really enjoying being a part of the #diversekidlit linkup - I am meeting so many wonderful sites - and books!

    1. So glad to you have too, Marjorie! Love your 3 words. Great summary.


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