Finding Books with Diverse Characters: It’s Harder than You Think. The problem, the need, and how you can help

By Angelique Jessup, Ph.D., Program Director, Baltimore Campaign for Grade Level Reading/
Fund for Educational Excellence

“Nearly impossible.” “Like finding a needle in a haystack.” “Frustrating.”

These are just some of the comments the Baltimore Campaign for Grade Level Reading (GLR) and the Fund for Educational Excellence recently heard from colleagues and partners discussing the availability of children’s books with diverse characters. While this conversation is not new to the field, a recent New York Times op ed, “Black Kids Don’t Want to Read About Harriet Tubman All the Time,” echoed both the difficulty and frustration we experienced in our own recent book search.

Research shows that seeing characters that represent ones reality sparks connectivity and deepens interests and curiosity. Children of color are no different. However, GLR—a program of the Fund for Educational Excellence that aims to make sure all Baltimore City Public Schools students are reading on grade level by third grade—has experienced firsthand the issues outlined in the op ed: finding children’s books that show racially and culturally diverse characters is incredibly difficult. This needs to change.

As part of a new project (in partnership with Improving Education and City Schools) with six elementary schools designed to improve family engagement, increase summer learning, and build home libraries, we set out to find appropriate books to give every first grade student to encourage reading at home.

The task seemed simple enough: find a fun and engaging book for first grade students that included diverse characters. After hours of searching with incredible partners at the Enoch Pratt Free Library and City Schools, a frustrating truth surfaced: books that meet these criteria are few and far between. Our dilemma deepened as we expanded our search for bilingual books where we found an even starker dearth of options representing diverse characters. Why is it so hard? According to a February, 2017 NPR Code Switch article, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin found that only 12% of children’s books published in 2016 had characters who were people of color.

The call for more diversity in children’s books is getting louder and stronger. We were certainly able to find books that delved into historical topics like Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, and how people of color have consistently overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges. But, there just aren’t many books featuring diverse characters that are simply having fun and engaging in day to day life. 

Don’t get me wrong, these historical stories are incredibly important and need to be told to children (and as an African American mother of two young children, I am deeply grateful for these books). However, children of color deserve an array of books that span all topics—from silly to serious—and see illustrations that look like them and their communities.

We are not alone in this thinking. Groups like We Need Diverse Books and many others are pushing for quality books that are diverse in characters, topics and reading levels. GLR and the Fund are proud to be adding our voice to this call for greater diversity as an important step in encouraging reading for our City Schools students.

The good news is that while there are not nearly enough, diverse books do exist. With the help of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, GLR recently curated a list of diverse books for our 37 Little Free Libraries located throughout the city. Please check it out, and send us the names of other books that we should add to the list.

While you’re there, consider donating one of the books to a Little Free Library and be part of a movement that has given away over 60,000 books in the last 18 months to children living in book deserts. Or just buy one for a child in your life to help show publishers that the demand for diverse books is as real as the need to make sure all children can find themselves in the pages of a book.

Interested in learning more about GLR, how you can get involved, or other projects supporting children’s education at the Fund for Educational Excellence? Visit the GLR website or contact me at angeliquej@ffee.org.