How to make children’s book collections more inclusive

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. Here are some suggestions to make children’s book collections more inclusive.

June 03, 2021 by Christabel Pinto, Room to Read
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5 minutes read
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My Mom, The Driver by Reina Beatriz P. Peralta and illustrated by Pepot Z. Atienza
My Mom, The Driver by Reina Beatriz P. Peralta and illustrated by Pepot Z. Atienza

“The more you leave out, the more you highlight
what you leave in.”

Henry Green, author

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.

The Suitcase, by Mbongeni Nzimande and illustrated by Elizabeth Pulles
The Suitcase, by Mbongeni Nzimande and illustrated by Elizabeth Pulles

2. Do not overgeneralize: Identity categories such as caste, tribe, religion, disability, and gender intersect with each other, so it is important to create complex characters that reflect the unique experiences of individuals within any particular group. Marginalized groups are not monolithic, and the intersectionality of identity can result in multiple layers of exclusion.

In Epi’s New Friend by Nila Tanzil, illustrated by Nabila Adani, Fatima’s experience as both an Afghan refugee and foreign language speaker makes her doubly vulnerable to marginalization compared to Epi, her Indonesian neighbor. The two girls become friends, demonstrating that a shared love of games and common practice of celebrating iftar are more powerful than their differences.

Epi’s New Friend by Nila Tanzil and illustrated by Nabila Adani
Epi’s New Friend by Nila Tanzil and illustrated by Nabila Adani.

3. Aspire for more #ownvoices stories: In an #ownvoices story, authors from a marginalized community write about characters from the same marginalized group. Identities intersect, so assigning the #ownvoices label is nuanced since the author does not need to share all the marginalized identities of the character.

It is common for books that include characters from marginalized communities to be written by authors who are not part of those groups. Even with the authors’ good intentions, this can result in character portrayals that are inaccurate and potentially damaging to marginalized communities.

Authors can choose to write about anything. However, the more stories can be informed by the communities that are being represented in them, the more accurate and authentic the character portrayals will be, and the less likely they will be based on harmful stereotypes and assumptions. For this reason, #ownvoices stories are an important subcategory of an inclusive book collection for children.

4. Challenge stereotypes in culturally sensitive ways: Children’s books can challenge stereotypes, such as having female characters in roles that are usually associated with men. While it is important to raise questions and encourage critical reflection about the status quo, local book creators should decide how and in what way they want to push boundaries for their own creative works.

The danger to imposing diversity requirements on book creators is that the resulting stories risk being only symbolically inclusive, and they might not be sensitive to the local context.

Finally, it is not enough for a children’s book collection to have inclusive representation within it, but every child needs to be able to access it. Ensuring book access for all will require book adaptations such as the development of braille books, audio books, and minority language translations.

With nobody left out, we may realize a dream in which inclusive books, that are as diverse as the human experience, are available to all children to read with ease, understanding and enjoyment.

References:

  • Adukia, A., Eble, A., Harrison, E., Runesha, H. B., Szasz, T. (2021) What We Teach About Race and Gender: Representation in Images and Text of Children’s Books (BFI Working Paper NO. 2021-44). University of Chicago: Becker Friedman Institute for Economics
  • Sims Bishop, R. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives, 1(3), ix–xi.
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