Why Diversity in Books Matters
Making a diverse selection of books available to students is a powerful way to celebrate everyone’s unique experiences, cultures, and identities. When students are able to see a reflection of themselves in the pages of a book, they are being sent a message that their experience matters.
In addition, diversity in books can open students’ eyes to a wide array of characters whose lives may be very different from their own. Great literature has the power to transport us as readers—we can truly feel the characters’ emotions, delve into their thoughts, and experience their physical environments. This creates empathy, and helps students to become more conscious of the world around them and the many people who inhabit it.
Diversity in literature can help students to be more compassionate, caring citizens. Reading about other cultures and identities can remind students of both similarities and differences in the human experience. No matter who we are, we all have dreams, hopes, and fears—and so can a book’s protagonist.
“Books allow you to access the whole inner life of another person,” says Margaret Dilloway, an author of middle-grade books who has been honored by the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association. “A glimpse into someone else’s interior is something you can only get from a book.”
“Books allow you to access the whole inner life of another person. A glimpse into someone else’s interior is something you can only get from a book.”
Dilloway adds, “It’s important for kids to see themselves in books. It affirms one’s existence. It’s also important to read about other people’s experiences, and understand what it’s like to walk around in their skin.”
According to Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, author, education researcher, and professor emerita of education at Ohio State University, books can be “mirrors” that allow readers to see themselves in the pages. They can also be “doors” that open vistas into other worlds and perspectives. Multicultural literature in the classroom can meet both needs.
Statistics on Diversity in Literature
In the 1980s, students would be more likely to find a book about talking turtles or anthropomorphic race cars than they would a book about or by an author who is Black. In fact, the literary landscape hasn’t changed dramatically. “Books about white children, talking bears, trucks, monsters, potatoes, etc. represent nearly three quarters (71%) of children's and young adult books published in 2019,” reported the Cooperative Children's Book Center.
However, there are more diverse books available today than ever before, taking into account both authors and characters who represent diverse cultures, backgrounds, and experiences. In 1985, for example, less than 1 percent of books published in the U.S. were by Black authors and/or illustrators. By 2021, this number surpassed 9 percent.
In 1994, as another example, only about 3 percent of books published in the U.S. were about Black or African characters. By 2021, approximately 14 percent of books were about Black or African characters, along with 11 percent Asian characters, and 7 percent Latinx characters. (Data on books by and about Black, Indigenous and People of Color published for children and teens compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison.)
These numbers still don’t reflect the overall diversity of students in the United States, but they do show a growing trend and a demand for books that are relevant and representative:
- A study conducted in 2018 by School Library Journal revealed that “the majority of librarians, 81 percent, consider it ‘very important’ to have a diverse book collection for kids and teens.”
- DonorsChoose has “seen a 117 percent increase in classroom projects requesting resources for students to ‘see themselves,’” and has in response started a funding initiative called #ISeeMe.
“I wish there had been more books around when I was younger that talked more about diverse communities and real-life issues,” says Rachel Werner, an author for the new HMH Fresh Lit series, which offers diverse, contemporary short stories for young adults. “We need more of our own voices, especially in picture books. Just think of the beauty of a little girl picking up a book with gorgeous illustrations—a girl who is Black or a person of color, or of mixed ethnicity, like myself.”
“I wish there had been more books around when I was younger that talked more about diverse communities and real-life issues.”
Diverse Literature in the Classroom
We Need Diverse Books defines diversity in books as books that recognize “all diverse experiences, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, Native, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.”
This definition encompasses many different aspects of diversity. For example, the category of “people with disabilities” could refer to a character with social anxiety or another invisible disability. In addition, diversity can refer both to the characters of the book or the people involved in making it.
The characters in quality children’s books can and should be multidimensional. A book about a teen in a wheelchair, for example, could tell a story about this person following a passion for music—not just a one-dimensional story about being in a wheelchair. In addition, this character could have any gender, race, or ethnicity. They could have diverse strengths, challenges, and social circumstances that all blend together to make for a rich and authentic literary character.
“The best stories hook me in because I suddenly think to myself, oh my gosh. I can imagine myself in that situation.”
Telling a good story with believable characters is key. Stacey Lee, one of the authors of HMH Fresh Lit, which offers diverse, contemporary short stories for young adults, says, “The best stories hook me in because I suddenly think to myself, oh my gosh. I can imagine myself in that situation. What would I do? I'm reading to see how that character is going to get out of that situation or how that character is going to deal with that situation.”
"They want to read a story about themselves. They want to read about them being the hero and escaping or figuring things out. They want to see themselves overcoming challenges.”
Rhiannon Frater, another Fresh Lit author, was influenced by a mix of German and Mexican cultures while growing up in Texas. “I remember when I was a kid and I would look for certain stories and I couldn't find them,” says Frater. “I have nieces and nephews, and they all want to read the same stuff. They want to read a story about themselves. They want to read about them being the hero and escaping or figuring things out. They want to see themselves overcoming challenges.”
Diverse Books across the Curriculum
Diverse books can be incorporated across the curriculum, not just in a language arts class. The overall goal of exposing students to non-stereotypical experiences applies to all subjects. For example, the stereotypical scientist is a man in a lab coat, so it can be important for girls to see examples of women scientists in the books they read. Lorraine Carter-Lovejoy, a middle school science teacher, brings books that include a variety of “social identifiers,” such as race, religion, and gender, into her STEM curriculum.
She introduced her class to a book titled Salamander Sky, by Katy Farber. The book celebrates women in science and features a “black-haired, olive-skinned child and her diverse classmates.” Carter-Lovejoy liked the message that this sent her students, plus the book still told a good story that included scientific facts about the elusive spotted salamanders that migrate every spring in the eastern United States.
Diverse books are valuable to bring into the math and social studies curricula as well. Says author Stacey Lee, “I think that there's an absence of people of color in historical narratives. I don't know if people realize that Asian Americans were there at the start of our nation. We were there building railroads, working in the trenches, feeding people at restaurants. Asian Americans have been there since the beginning and really contributed to the fabric of society. And so if I can add to the shelves in a way that brings those things to life, then I'm happy to do that.”
How to Find Diverse Literature
No matter the cultural makeup of your students or the needs of your classroom library, there are plenty of resources to help ensure that you have diverse literature in the classroom.
- The nonprofit organization We Need Diverse Books offers a free list of resources for finding diverse books.
- Lincoln Public Schools, in Nebraska, runs a yearly committee called MOSAIC that “selects, reviews, and promotes books that authentically and realistically portray the diversity of all students, from both historical and contemporary perspectives.”
- How to Find Diverse Books | Colorín Colorado is a bilingual site for educators and families of English language learners.
- Diverse Books Project offers a collection of books and resources for families and schools.
HMH is proud to be a part of the list, as well. Our new series, Fresh Lit, which is part of Into Literature, offers diverse, contemporary short stories with accompanying lesson slides for young adults in both English and Spanish, delivered in a digital text format.
Teachers can also seek out book awards that reflect diverse perspectives. These include The Coretta Scott King Award, the Pura Belpre Award, the Printz Award, Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award, and the Stonewall Book Award.
HMH makes it easy to incorporate diverse stories into your curriculum. This new digital text library collection, HMH Fresh Lit, helps students see themselves reflected in the literature they study.
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Dr. Amy Endo
Education Research Director, Supplemental & Intervention Language & Literacy
Senior Director Community Engagement, HMH; Host of HMH Learning Moments: Teachers in America Podcast