20 Dec Buying picture books as Christmas presents? These stories with diverse characters can help kids develop empathy
Gifting children books can be about more than just giving them something to read, writes Helen Joanne Adam. Books are portals to adventure, imagination and new experiences. Importantly, books can help children understand and appreciate themselves, and those around them.
Sadly, books normalising racial, cultural, family or gender diversity and diverse abilities are few and far between.
When children see characters and stories reflecting their background, they can develop a stronger sense of identity. Research also shows reading books with diverse characters and story-lines helps children develop a greater understanding and appreciation of people different to themselves.
Here are some suggestions of diverse picture books you could buy for kids this Christmas.
1. Books with diverse characters
A student teacher I know was tutoring a nine-year-old Muslim girl and decided to share with her a book called The Rainbow Hijab. When the girl saw the book, her eyes lit up with excitement and she turned to her tutor and said, “I didn’t know they made books about Muslim girls like me.”
No child should feel invisible in books. All children should be able to see themselves and people different to them portrayed in positive and inclusive ways.
The best books for children are those containing enjoyable story lines and reflecting diversity without preaching about it.
The Patchwork Bike by Maxine Beneba Clarke, illustrated by Van T. Rudd, is about children of African and Muslim background and the bike they build together from things they find around them. All children can relate to the joyful story of playing outside and being creative.
Other books containing relatable childhood stories are:
- Aunty’s Wedding, by Miranda Tapsell, illustrated by Joshua Tyler and Samantha Fry
- Maddie’s First Day by Penny Matthews, illustrated by Liz Annelli.
2. Books portraying diverse abilities
Almost 5% of children in Australia live with a severe disability, while nearly 8% have some level of disability. This number is likely higher as there are many children with undiagnosed complex needs, such as autism.
Two Mates, written and illustrated by Melanie Prewett is about a young Aboriginal boy and his non-Indigenous best mate who has spina bifida. The story focuses on their mateship and adventures rather than highlighting their differences. All children benefit from seeing diverse abilities being portrayed in such a positive way.
Two others books in which diverse abilities are normalised rather than highlighted are:
- Isaac and His Amazing Asperger Super Powers! written and illustrated by Melanie Walsh
- Boy by Phil Cummings, illustrated by Shane Devries.
3. Books portraying gender and family diversity
Many adults find selecting books for children challenging. My, and others’, research shows adults generally select children’s books based on what they loved when they were children.
This can be a problem, as older books often reflect outdated views of gender, families, diverse cultures and abilities.
For example, there are close to 48,000 single sex families in Australia. yet children from these families rarely see characters like them in books.
My Shadow is Pink, written and illustrated by Scott Stuart, is a rhyming book about a young gender-diverse child. This book beautifully explores his relationship with his father who helps him be proud of who he is.
Two other books that tell stories of gender or family diversity in supportive and informative ways are:
- Who’s Your Real Mum? by Bernadette Green, illustrated by Anna Zobel
- Love Makes a Family, written and illustrated by Sophie Beer.
4. Books challenging gender stereotypes
I Want to be a Superhero by Breanna Humes, illustrated by Ambelin Kwaymullina tells the story of a little girl who wants to be a superhero. Her Grandpa encourages and supports her as she discovers it is OK to dream big. It is important for children to see that gender or race should not define who you are or what you can do.
Two others books promoting positive messages that disrupt traditional gender stereotypes are:
- Me and my Boots by Penny Harrison, illustrated by Evie Barrow
- Want to Play Trucks? by Ann Stott, illustrated by Bob Graham.
5. Books with messages about social justice
These books shed light on important social justice issues through gentle informative stories.
- When We Say Black Lives Matter, written and illustrated by Maxine Beneba Clarke
- Somebody’s Land by Adam Goodes and Ellie Laing, illustrated by David Hardy
- Stories for Simon by Lisa Miranda Sarzin, illustrated by Lauren Briggs.
Other diverse books I simply must recommend
- The Proudest Blue by Ibtihaj Muhammed (as told to S. K. Ali), illustrated by Hatem Aly
- The Rainbow Hijab by Amran Abdi, illustrated by Nicola Davies
- Baby Business, written and illustrated by Jasmine Seymour
- Once There Was a Boy, written and illustrated by Dub Leffler.
Helen Joanne Adam, Senior Lecturer in Literacy Education and Children’s Literature: Course Coordinator Master of Teaching (Primary), Edith Cowan University