The inclusiveness of a book collection can be viewed through the lens of this quote: whose experiences are being left out of the collection and, as a result, whose experiences are being highlighted?
The development of children’s literature is not a socially neutral process. Systemic, societal structures privilege some voices over others. When reviewed through an inclusion lens, children’s book collections will likely reveal a biased representation that favors those who hold power in a society. A recent study done in the US, for example, showed a persistent over-representation of white males in children’s books.
Inclusion in books matters because literature conveys sociocultural norms that can shape children’s beliefs and aspirations, and influence how they see and understand themselves and their place in the world. As a source of learning, children’s books offer a “means through which we either address, perpetuate, or entrench structural societal inequalities” (Adukia et al, 2021).
Besides, having children’s lived experiences portrayed in the books they read is good for learning overall. An emotional connection to a book can motivate readers, especially reluctant ones.
Inclusive book collections also build global citizenship and foster empathy, contributing to target 4.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals: to promote a “culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity”.
Books are a window to the world. As Rudine Sims Bishop put it: “books may be one of the few places where children…may meet people unlike themselves. If they see only reflections of themselves, they will grow up with an exaggerated sense of their own importance and value in the world — a dangerous ethnocentrism”.
4 suggestions for inclusive children’s book collections
To develop children’s books with an inclusive lens, there are a few things to keep in mind during book creation:
1. Avoid tokenism: The inclusion of characters from marginalized communities should involve them having meaningful roles in the story. It is not inclusive to have these characters as inactive observers. In an analysis of more than 1,100 award-winning children’s books in the US, female characters were “seen more than heard”, indicating a symbolic inclusion in pictures without a substantive inclusion in the story (Adukia et al, 2021).
In the South African story, The Suitcase, by Mbongeni Nzimande, illustrated by Elizabeth Pulles, the protagonist, Lwazi, needs something to wear to participate in a dance competition. Not only is Lwazi an albino child, but the reader would not know this without the illustrations.
The story focuses on something universally relatable: wanting something that one does not have. This emphasis on the humanity we all share, regardless of our differences, builds empathy for marginalized communities.