The Power in the Diversity of Children’s Literature

28th October 2022

As we celebrate Black History Month, we wanted to focus on the power in the diversity of children’s literature and what this means for the children we visit. We are often asked by the children to bring books showcasing important Black figures in history and we are constantly updating our own book stock at Doorstep Library to ensure that we have an adequate collection to meet these requests. 

Alongside our desire to meet our children’s individual tastes and interests, we know how important it is to constantly review and update our collection, ensuring our books feature and celebrate people from all walks of life.  The last few years have seen a marked rise in children’s literature featuring diverse characters and we have worked hard to reflect this in the books we have on offer.  Last year we appointed a dedicated Book Coordinator to help us achieve these aims.  As part of this work we have been developing partnerships with companies like Little Box of Books who celebrate more diverse authors, and A New Chapter Books an online shop who specialises in diverse content.  This has enabled us to find a better balance in the content within our collection in relation to the makeup of not just the children that we visit, but also the communities they live in.

We’ve found this approach to be a huge success, not least in the heart-warming feedback from the children we visit along with their parents, who are always delighted to see their own children reflected back in the books they can borrow from us. 

Our Lambeth Project Coordinator Judah recalls an experience from a recent visit:

“Five-year-old Laila flicked through a book when she saw that one of the characters was wearing a headscarf. Her whole demeanour changed, she was so excited and kept pointing at the page saying, “she has one – I have one too”. She would keep turning back to that page and just gaze at the picture. We chatted about what a lovely colour the headscarf in the picture was, and what colour headscarves the little girl had. At the end of the visit, (her) mum spoke to us about how grateful she is for Doorstep Library’s visits. There’s a bit of a language barrier but as we were leaving, she put her hands to her heart and simply said “happy, happy, happy”.

We also look to well-known authors from more diverse backgrounds to understand what challenges they faced and why representation is so important to them. 

In an interview with Penguin, children’s author Malorie Blackman said “in all the thousands and thousands and thousands of books I read as a child I didn’t read a single book that featured a black character – not one.  So it never occurred to me that I could get a story published.” 

Adult sci-fi author N. K. Jemisin talks about the dichotomy of her love for sci-fi stories but their lack of diverse characters in her essay titled “How Long ‘til Black Future Month”. She asks, “Why was it easier to find aliens or unicorns, than people of colour?”.  She talks about how not seeing herself as a character not only had the potential to alienate her from a career, but crucially she observed, “No one thinks my people have a future”. 

It is in this observation that we can really feel the true power of a story, and the impact of diverse representation on a person’s self-worth, their sense of belonging and their sense of ambition.  These traits can all be found listed under ‘self esteem’ by mental health experts, and are key pillars in maintaining positive emotional health and overall wellbeing which are the cornerstones to living a happy and fulfilled life.  So we can start to build a picture now of why representation is so important, especially in our early and formative years. 

Thankfully the likes of Malorie Blackman and other children’s authors like Zanib Mian , Nathan Bryon, Alex Gino, Annabelle Sami and even Marcus Rashford weren’t disheartened when they didn’t see themselves in literature, but rather were inspired, and are all creating work which is allowing diverse representation in children’s literature to grow.  This means seeing characters that are non-white, less-abled, neurodivergent and of the LGBTQ+ community not just featuring but playing lead roles. 

Children who come from these communities can now take center stage in their own stories, or see adults that they identify with having a successful career as a writer, or actors like them being cast in film or tv adaptations.

We know from first hand experience the joy and inspiration that children experience when they see themselves represented in stories. 

As many know, Wimpy Kid is one of the most popular series of books around.  Featuring a 12-year-old American school boy many of the children we read with can relate to his day-to-day antics told in a diary style.  When Planet Omar was released in 2019 by Zanib Mian, it harnessed all the things children love about Wimpy Kid, but now gave a perspective from a young Muslim boy living in England. 

One child we visit wanted to try something new, and so one of our volunteers (who is also Muslim) took Planet Omar.  She said;  

“As soon as Yasir started reading it his eyes lit up and he asked me “Did you write this book?” I laughed and said, “No, a lady named Zanib wrote this book.” He smiled at his mum and said “Our auntie is called Zanib,” as Mum agreed. Then we continued reading. He noticed how Omar said he enjoys trips to the mosque with his dad. Yasir asked me “Is this about a Muslim boy?” I said, “ Yes it is.” He smiled and continued reading. I asked him “Do you like this book?” He said, “Yes – I definitely want to read this book.” 

We can all hark back to our favourite childhood books when wanting to read with a child today, or even when buying a present for a friend or family member’s little one, but before you default to just the lovable bunny or the Enid Blyton classics, do stop to think about how far we’ve come.  A character who wasn’t readily available to us growing up, might mean so much to the child we’re reading with, to see themselves mirrored back, or their friend from school, or their cousin, their teacher or their parents. 

Diversity is about representation and inclusion as well as demystifying and celebrating differences.  It is also about education and role models, possibilities, dreams and pride.

To read our previous blog on the importance of diversity in children’s literature visit – Greater diversity in children’s books is needed.