We Still Need Diverse Books

A third-grade teacher shares how she uses diverse picture books to surround her students with mirrors and windows—and to combat implicit biases.

More and more educators are coming around to the need for diverse books, but the importance of equity in literature and learning also finds support in research. In Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, psychologists Dr. Mahzarin Banaji and Dr. Anthony Greenwald shed light on the origin of our brains’ biases and stereotypes, which often contradict our consciously held beliefs. According to their research, our automatic responses to race, gender, age and other identifiers are triggered by negative and positive associations without us being aware of them, and can be directly opposed to our attitudes upon reflection. While our ability to categorize information is an essential skill in helping us to make sense of our world, it comes with a price—what the authors refer to as “submerged, automatically activated meanings.”

The implications of these unconscious, implicit biases pose significant risks to our knowledge-construction process. Since new learning is the result of building on what we already know, we continuously tap into these associations, whether we believe them or not. While Banaji and Greenwald offer no solutions to the problem, they do describe instances in which awareness of the potential for implicit bias was used to develop explicit measures that successfully, if temporarily, counteracted negative stereotypes.

One way in which I strive to maintain this conscious awareness in my classroom is through my choices and uses of literature. For the past several years, my third-grade teaching colleagues and I have used diverse, multicultural picture books as the basis of our fall unit. Within any picture book lies the potential to either reinforce or counter negative stereotypes. They are valuable teaching tools that, on the one hand, surround our students with mirrors and windows and combat implicit bias on the other.

Picture books connect to our work in building an inclusive community and teaching our students that one part of any story or identity cannot tell the whole story. The titles we select change somewhat from year to year, but we are consistent in choosing texts that feature main characters of color and characters with other underrepresented identities. The themes of respecting differences, caring for one another and questioning assumptions also guide our selections. While books containing these messages are familiar to most teachers and children, books that also feature diverse protagonists are, unfortunately, considerably less abundant.

The phenomenal #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign raises public awareness around this void through the voices of children, authors, teachers, parents and researchers. The campaign has fueled my determination to seek out and intentionally build my teaching around books written, illustrated and featuring people with diverse identities. For this year’s fall unit, my colleagues and I selected these titles:

  • Rough, Tough Charley, Verla Kay, illustrated by Adam Gustavson
  • Fly Away Home, Eve Bunting, illustrated by Ronald Himler
  • Those Shoes, Maribeth Boelts, illustrated by Noah Z. Jones
  • Goal!, Mina Javaherbin, illustrated by A.G. Ford
  • Something Beautiful, Sharon Dennis Wyeth, illustrated by Chris K. Soentpiet
  • Wings, Christopher Myers
  • My Travelin’ Eye, Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw
  • Good Night, Commander, Ahmad Akbarpour, illustrated by Morteza Zahedi
  • Two of a Kind, Jacqui Robbins, illustrated by Matt Phelan
  • Dream Something Big: The Story of the Watts Towers, Dianna Hutts Aston, illustrated by Susan L. Roth
  • Magic Trash: A Story of Tyree Guyton and His Art, J.H. Shapiro, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton 

#WeNeedDiverseBooks has had a positive impact on my classroom. Now, in addition to thinking critically and writing about the content of the books, we are also engaged in discussing their significance in our classroom, our library and our society. In addition to providing “mirrors” and “windows” for my students, I have embraced the suggestion of author and illustrator Christopher Myers that books serve as “maps” that help children search for their place in the world. Yet, many of these maps are inadequate and outdated. Myers writes, “[The] apartheid of literature—in which characters of color are limited to the townships of occasional historical books … are never given a pass card to traverse the lands of adventure, curiosity, imagination or personal growth …”

Ultimately, we need to imagine and work toward a world where the books we read are as diverse as we are. How do you harness the potential of multicultural, diverse literature in your classroom?

Walters teaches third grade at the Gordon School in East Providence, Rhode Island, where she has taught for the past nine years.

Editor’s note: Check out Teaching Tolerance’s Perspectives text library, a resource that helps you surround your students with mirrors and windows.