Ever since the We Need Diverse Books movement began a couple years ago, publishing houses have made a concentrated effort to publish more books with multicultural themes and diverse ethnic representation. This is a great move in the right direction, so I was excited to give a talk about diversity in children's books recently at the New York Public Library.
Growing up in a small agricultural town on the Central Coast, I was acutely aware of being a "minority" from a very young age. It wasn't just the occasional teasing about my eyes, nose, face being different (though that really helped to accentuate the feeling of being "other"). I remember noticing that wherever we went - the grocery store, a restaurant, the library, my family was invariably the only Asian one. And when I was in elementary school, I was always the only Asian kid in my class.
Because of my experiences, it wasn't unusual to me that every single picture book I had or came across (and I read a lot!) never had characters that looked like me. The two exceptions were The Five Chinese Brothers and a book of Japanese folktales. Both took place in ancient times and didn't really relate to my daily life as an Asian American girl in the 1960s and 1970s. I think it is why many of my very favorite books as a child had animal characters in them. I especially loved RIchard Scarry's and Garth Williams' illustrated books. In Richard Scarry's world, animals were diverse in species and it was easy to identify with them all.
When I became an illustrator and then an author of picture books, one of my goals has always been to depict characters that are under represented into my work, even if the text doesn't "require" me to. And, happily, when I have discussed it with my editors and art directors, they have always been supportive. Many of my books feature biracial families, including my very first book, Night Shift Daddy, by Eileen Spinelli. In Soup Day, a book I wrote, the little girl is adopted from Asia. I'm not sure everyone notices these things in the illustrations, but I do know that people who come from these backgrounds do. Over the years, many parents have commented to me how nice it is to see their family makeup in my illustrations. The parents of adopted kids are especially happy to find a book with an adopted child that isn't about adoption at all.
There are so many wonderful picture books depicting children of diverse backgrounds, it was hard to choose which ones to share for the talk, but I decided to feature a bunch written and/or illustrated by friends to support them. :) I also wanted to share lesser known and older books as well, since they often don't get the attention they deserve.
Here is my list with a brief synopsis of each:
Mystery Bottle, by Kristen Balouch
This book is written by my friend, Kristen Balouch, and it’s the only one I can think of that features an Iranian American protagonist. It’s a beautiful story of a boy’s relationship with his grandfather in Iran.
Umbrella, by Taro Yashima
Umbrella features a little Japanese American girl living in NYC and her anticipation of finally using her new umbrella on a rainy day. It was originally published in 1958, and I’m sorry I never saw it growing up. I only came across it as an adult.
Peter's Chair, by Ezra Jack Keats
I love Ezra Jack Keats’ work. You all may already know of Snowy Day, but this book, Peter’s Chair, is also a wonderful story about accepting a new family member, and features the same character that appears in Snowy Day.
We Sang You Home, by Richard Van Camp, illustrated by Julie Flett
This beautiful story has a universal message, but it’s told from the perspective of a Canadian First Nations couple. Subtle hints of their heritage can be found in the details of the artwork.
No Kim Chee for Me! by Aram Kim
I love this sweet story by my friend, Aram, about Yoomi’s quest to finally eat spicy kimchee like her big brothers and prove she’s not a baby. The characters are cats, but they clearly have a Korean heritage. It also features a really good kimchee recipe at the end of the story!
Benito's Dream Bottle, by Naomi Shihab Nye, illustrated by Yu Cha Pak
I was drawn to this book when I bought it many years ago because it has to do with dreaming, and I haven’t seen any other books that talk about dreams in this way. In it, Benito is upset that his grandmother has stopped dreaming -- her dream bottle is empty! So he sets to correcting that and talks to many relatives about their dreams to find a solution. I love that the family is multigenerational and multicultural.
Freedom in Congo Square, by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
This is a beautiful illustrated (it's a Caldecott Honor book) and moving story about Congo square in New Orleans where people of African heritage, both enslaved and free, danced and played music on Sunday afternoons long, long ago. The intermingling of the different African, Caribbean, and European music led to the development of new styles, including jazz music.
Frida, by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Ana Juan
This is one of my favorite picture books, illustrated by Ana Juan about the artist, Frida Kahlo. Frida had a difficult life with many ailments, but through the simple text and beautiful paintings, her story is told in a kid friendly way that doesn't downplay the tragedy in her life but makes it accessible to young ones.
The King and the Three Thieves, by Kristen Balouch
Is a Persian folktale retold by Kristen about a wise king who eats alone. He dresses as a beggar and goes into town and winds up sharing a meal with three men who are planning to rob the king himself!
Yoshi's Feast, by Kimiko Kajikawa, illustrated by Yumi Heo
Another great tale about food – this one takes place in ancient Japan about two feuding neighbors, an eel broiler, and a fan maker. It was one of Jamie's favorites and we read it over and over to him.
Grandfather's Journey, by Allen Say
This book is just gorgeous, and the paintings have such a quiet, calming energy. It tells of the journey the author’s grandfather makes to the US from Japan and of the similar journey the author later makes as an adult. It always reminds me of my grandparents who immigrated to Hawaii at the turn of the century.
My Name is Yoon, by Helen Recorvits, illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska
Yoon is a Korean girl who moves to the US and must learn to write her name in English. Her name written in Roman letters looks strange and foreign to her and is akin to how she is feeling, learning to live in a new environment. It’s a unique story about a girl who must find her place in her new country.
The Ugly Vegetables, by Grace Lin
I love this wonderful story about a girl who thinks everyone else’s gardens look so much prettier than her family’s “ugly” vegetable garden. But in the end, her family makes a delicious Chinese soup with the vegetables, and they share it with their neighbors. She learns to appreciate the vegetables, "ugliness" and all.
Into the Snow, by Yuki Kaneko, illustrated by Maasamitsu Saito
Into the Snow is a simple sweet story about the fun and excitement of playing in and experiencing snow. There's no conflict or character arc, but it is a very tactile story and captures the quality of cold, fluffy snow perfectly. I love that the main character is Asian for no specific reason. This is the kind of book I wish I had grown up with!
Last Stop on Market Street, by Matt de la Pena, illustrated by Christian Robinson
This is a well-known book you are probably already familiar with. It’s a beautiful sand touching story of a boy and his grandmother and the bus ride they take all the way down to Market Street where they volunteer at a soup kitchen. His grandmother shows him that there’s beauty everywhere as long as you look out for it.
Thank You, Trees! by Gail Langer Karwoski and Marilyn E. Gootman, illustrated by Kristen Balouch
This is a cute book about T’uv Shevat, a Jewish holiday celebrating the new year for trees. i never even knew this tradition existed. I love the sentiment. The publisher, Kar Ben, publishes many Jewish themed picture books. So if you are looking specifically for a book with Jewish themes, they have a large catalog and backlist of appropriate books.
I Love Saturdays y domingos, by Alma Flor Ada, illustrated by Elivia Savadier
This story is about a little girl and her visits to her two sets of grandparents – one on Saturdays, and one on Sundays, who have very different cultural backgrounds but who share a love for their granddaughter. There’s a lot of Spanish words sprinkled in the text too which is nice.
Sweetest Kulu by Celina Kalluk , illustrated by Alexandria Neonakis
Kulu is a Inukitut term of endearment, and Sweetest Kulu, is a beautiful poem about all the different wild animals who visit the newborn bearing various gifts.
Thunder Boy Jr., by Sherman Alexie, illustrated by Yuyi Morales
Thunder Boy Jr., named after his dad, wants his own unique name, different from his father's, and tries out many possibilities until he finds just the right one.
All the Way to Havana by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Mike Curato
This is a really fun book to read aloud. It’s about a young boy’s journey with his family from the country to Havana in their old, rattling car, Cara Cara. The rich, lush illustrations by Mike Curato really capture the warmth and beauty of Cuba. I thought of this book often during my recent visit to Cuba!
If you're interested in finding other multicultural and diverse books, here are other places where you can find more information and resources.
Also, these hashtags are useful for doing searches for lists of books on Twitter and Google: