Diversity and Inclusion
So if white privilege exists, along with institutional racism, what can we do? How do librarians combat the harm toward children that can result from negative depictions of minority groups? Librarians can begin by learning about diversity and inclusion.
For many people, diversity and inclusion point to the same idea. Isn’t it just about representing a wide variety of identities and experiences? Ensuring that all voices are heard? Yet in practice, they amount to different things, and deliver different outcomes.
The distinction rests in identity vs. behavior: diversity is the range of specific identities and experiences, and inclusion is how you make sure all of those identities are welcomed (Arruda, 2016). For example, diversity in a library setting can mean ensuring that your staff’s demographics match your community’s and represent a range of experiences and backgrounds. Being inclusive in that library will involve how you ensure that these differences are respected and celebrated, and how your environment is conducive to honesty and change. Additionally, inclusion in practice can mean ensuring that diverse voices have an equitable say in decision-making. In a library setting, placing people of color only in paraprofessional positions, for example, will not only not serve the library or community most effectively, but will not create an environment where all voices and experiences have an equitable value.
In books, particularly children’s books, diversity can mean illustrating a wide range of characters in the background of a scene in a school. Can we see all types of children represented? Inclusion can go further and ask, do these children have any voices in the text, or are they simply supporting the main character, who is white/straight/able-bodied/Christian etc.? What agency do they have in the story? Who is writing these stories, also? Are we only reading stories about children of color, Spanish-speaking children, or disabled children, from those who are effectively outsiders? Are we prioritizing those who have lived these experiences when we consume such media?
Inclusion also involves looking at the intersections of what makes us diverse. What does it mean to be Black and queer and neurodivergent? How often will one see those experiences (accurately) represented in the media? Often, representation in books may examine one facet of being an Other — being gay, or having a diagnosis of Asperger’s, or being Black, but rarely all three. Yet people do not experience their identities, especially those that are marginalized, separately; indeed, they often overlap (Kim, 2018). To be truly inclusive and reflective of the world in which children live, books must portray this reality.
Examples of Inclusive Books
One example of an inclusive picture book is All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold and Suzanne Kaufman. This title includes illustrations of children that vary across ability, heritage, skin color, and gender. The title emphasizes that all people belong “here,” without erasing difference. Each child (and adult!) is depicted as important and valued.
Another excellent inclusive picture book is The Day You Begin by Jaqueline Woodson and Rafael López. This title tackles the fears that kids have — does my skin color or hair make me stand out? What about my language, or where I’m from? What if my family is different from my friends’, or what if even my name is too different from the kids in my school? Woodson artfully and lyrically addresses these fears by showing children that they belong here — even if “no one is quite like you.” The book encourages children to accept that there may be times when it feels lonely, but that when you begin to share your own story, to claim your own voice, you will find others just like you, waiting to be heard and to hear. This is the essence of justice and inclusivity.
In A Computer Called Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Helped Put America on the Moon, Suzanne Slade shares the extraordinary accomplishments of Katherine Johnson, a Black woman who worked for NASA as a mathematician and helped the moon mission come to fruition. Slade shows how Johnson had to face sexism and racism in her career, but that she was also able to overcome these obstacles and become such an important and inspiring figure.
I Walk with Vanessa by Kerascoët is a wordless picture book that tells the tale of a young girl who is bullied. Yet what starts as a sad story becomes a happy and hopeful one, as the children around her, led by another young girl, walk with her and force the bully out. Such a book inspires children to have empathy and think about the the power of their words and actions, and in doing so, can create inclusive environments for their own peers. Importantly, both of the two main characters appear to be girls of color, with agency and complexity that is typically given to white and/or male characters in children’s literature. In this book, these girls happen to be of color, which reflects the reality in which children live, and presents another excellent opportunity for children of color to see themselves portrayed positively in media.
Julián Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love is the story of Julián, who, while on the train with his abuela, sees beautiful women who look like mermaids. Thus starts a beautiful sequence where he imagines himself as an equally beautiful mermaid, rendered exquisitely in watercolors. This story is about acceptance, beauty, and transformation. It features Afrolatinx and trans/genderfluid representation, as well as lovely family relationships. Julián’s story will appeal to all children: those who like mermaids, have similar grand imaginations, and question gender norms, as well as those who just love beautiful art!
In Hurricane Child by Kheryn Callender, a middle grade novel, our main character is Caroline, a child haunted by abandonment from her mother. She must learn to let go of her mother — and everything she lost — in order to heal. Caroline is Black and queer, and we see her deal with racism, homophobia, classism/poverty, and bullying from other kids; she also lives in the Caribbean. She is a unique and fascinating character, and as said in the video linked below, the book feels very much like a classic. All of the characters are well-developed, and no character is a stereotype or token. This book effortlessly portrays how people deal with having multiple overlapping identities and experiences (intersectionalities) and how to claim one’s own voice.
When Were Alone, a children’s picture book by David A. Robertson (Swampy Cree) and Julie Flett (Cree-Metis), is a gorgeous book. Told in English also with Cree names and words, it tells the story of a woman’s history in the residential boarding school system in Canada. While it shares the sad and tragic truth of these schools, it is also filled with joy, happiness, and family.
Children can learn about First Nations history if they are outsiders, and come to empathize with the people who suffered under the residential school system. Children who are descended from those who have survived the system, or share the same community or heritage, will enjoy seeing a positive, loving, and authentic portrayal of their families.