Diversity Is Not Optional

Over the past few months, I’ve been reading the CBC Diversity blog with interest. And then in the middle of May, I saw the news that white births are no longer the majority in the U.S. This got me thinking about what we want our children’s books to look like for an increasingly diverse audience. Much of the discussion I’ve heard about children’s books and diversity has focused on fictional picture books and novels. Because Millbrook publishes primarily nonfiction books with photos and/or illustrations, I’ve been thinking about how we incorporate diversity in nonfiction.

This list is by no means comprehensive, and I think we have more work to do with regard to diversity in all areas of children’s publishing, but it’s at least a start.

1. Photos! We use a lot of stock photography in our series nonfiction. This means we’re sometimes constrained by what our photo sources have. The good news is that it’s not usually hard to find generic photos of kids from many different ethnic backgrounds. But it gets trickier when you’re looking for something more specific—a 6-year-old African American girl in a wheelchair, a 9-year-old Latino boy with a skinned knee, a 12-year-old Asian girl sleeping in class.


2. Illustrations! Unless there’s a specific reason why the people in a crowd scene should be all of the same ethnicity, we need to see diversity in all crowd scenes, classroom scenes, etc. And even if just one ethnicity is depicted, we still need to see varied skin tones and hair styles. Different illustrators will depict diversity in different ways. They should incorporate diversity in a way that is in keeping with their overall style.


3. Book creators! We need authors, illustrators, photographers, editors, book designers, etc., etc., from all backgrounds.

4. Names! When authors are naming characters (in fiction or nonfiction; we often have brief hypothetical scenarios in our nonfiction), are they all named Johnny, Sue, and Mary? Or are all Latino males named José? See the SSA Baby Names page to find out the most popular names now and in previous years.

5. Specificity! The author, illustrator, and editor of the new book Rashad’s Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr worked with a fabulous local consultant to depict a Somali family rather than a generic every-Muslim family. While the primary goal of the book is to teach young readers—Muslim and non-Muslim alike—about Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr, it’s important that the characters are specific individuals rather than people who are supposed to stand in for all Muslim people.


Want to read more about diversity and children’s books? Check out American Indians in Children’s Literature, the Brown BookshelfPaper Tigers, as well as the CBC Diversity blog I mentioned earlier, which has links to even more resources.

On a more personal note, I just want to say this was not a quick or easy blog post to write. Talking about race can be awkward and difficult. But nothing will change if we don’t talk about it. A few years ago, I read the book NurtureShock  and was struck by a chapter that focused on talking about race with children. The biggest mistake parents make, it seems, is not talking about it and not being specific enough. Simply saying “we are all equal” to a 5-year-old is too abstract. Here is more on this topic from the book’s authors.