Illinois is a state rich in diversity, especially in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. Hundreds of languages are spoken in the region and traditions from most corners of the globe are celebrated in family’s homes across the state. But in this deeply varied state, many children have a hard time seeing themselves and children of varied cultures reflected in the books read to them and scattered about in their homes.
Children’s books help shape what children think about themselves, their peers, and the world around them. What children see – and do not see – in books can have a lasting impression on their values, attitudes, and actions. Children thrive when they see themselves and their cultures reflected in books. Growth and discovery occur when they see the beautiful breadth of other types of people and experiences in their books. For too long, children’s books have largely reflected White, gender-stereotyped characters and able-bodied heroes.
For children of color, particularly from Black and Brown communities, books that are mirrors can make a positive impact on their racial identity formation, self-worth, and belonging. For all children, books that are windows can increase empathy, acceptance, and inclusivity. Children become aware of race-based differences starting in infancy and can express racial bias by the time they are in preschool. Books have the power to be a catalyst for discussing race and racism as well as promoting equity and inclusion with young children. By ensuring children have access to these books from the start, we can help interrupt persistent inequality in our society.
Reach Out & Read prides itself on the quality of books that accompany the advice to read aloud at doctor’s visits. We strive to give language-appropriate books when possible as well. But now we hope to do even better and increase the share of books given to children that reflect their own lives as well as the world around them, in all its wonderfully diverse forms! We encourage all Reach Out & Read program sites in Illinois to assess their current library of children’s books to see how they can enhance their book diversity. Evaluate the books in your library on these factors:
- Are characters stereotypically drawn?
- Do people of color have Caucasian features except for tinted skin?
- Do the illustrations depict cultures, abilities, genders, and families in positive ways?
- What messages, overt or covert, are children receiving from the story?
- How does the story support or undermine a child’s self-esteem?
- Are people of color or girls in subservient roles?
- Are cultural beliefs and practices portrayed accurately?
- Are negative judgments implied in depicting diverse lifestyle?
- Does the text depict cultures, abilities, genders, and families in positive ways?
- Are girls and people of color represented equally in all character roles?
- How are individual characters presented?
- Who has the power?
- Who are the heroes?
- Who are the villains?
You can enhance the diversity of your library by including more books that:
- Include characters of color, LGBTQ+ characters, or characters with disabilities – especially books where these are the main characters.
- Are written or illustrated by a person of color or an LGBTQ+ person.
- Feature a person of color on the cover; the characters on the book cover should accurately reflect the characters in the book.
- Can serve as both “mirrors” and “windows” – books in which children can see themselves reflected and in which they can learn about others.
- Ensure that storylines do not simply repeat the same story we always hear. Do all your books featuring black characters focused on slavery? Are all your LGBTQ+ books coming out stories?
- Feature diverse characters that are not only about race or prejudice.
The Advisory Board of Reach Out & Read Illinois has many resources as well for books to include in your library.