Here’s how we can – and why we must – improve diverse representation in children’s books

Education & Health Equity | Too Small to Fail

It’s important for children to see themselves within the pages of a book – let’s talk about why.


Woman reads with infant
Too Small to Fail and partners work to distribute books and educational resources to children and families across the country.

It’s been said that art imitates life – and many times, it does. But what about the times it doesn’t?

For many children, art does not always imitate life. That is, the stories they encounter do not always reflect their reality. The books they read at home or at school do not always portray characters that they can identify with.

Publishing statistics from 2018 on books by and about Black, Indigenous, and people of color compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison revealed that compared to the 50 percent of children’s books that featured white characters, just 23 percent featured non-white characters of any race. (The remaining 27 percent featured animal or other non-human characters.)

It’s important for children to see diverse representation in the books they read – but why? And how can we make it so that diversity in children’s literature is no longer a notable exception but rather, the norm?

To address this issue, Too Small to Fail, the National Black Child Development Institute (NBCDI), and Raising A Reader joined forces to shine a light on the need for diverse representation in children’s literature and to get more diverse children’s books into the hands of children in communities across the nation, particularly low-income and historically under-resourced communities.

Patti Miller, chief executive officer of Too Small to Fail, the early childhood initiative of the Clinton Foundation, said, “We know that young children’s experiences with books and characters they portray can shape their attitudes and beliefs – about themselves and about their place in the world. These representations also provide children with a sense of belonging, as well as a greater awareness and respect for others’ identities and experiences.”


Diverse books help children understand diverse stories – including their own

Simply put, a book is both a mirror and a window. It can reflect the reality of a child’s life, allowing them to see the story of someone who looks like them, thinks like them, or lives like them. It can also help a child understand what it’s like for those who live different realities, whether that is a different racial background, religion, socio-economic status, or another facet of identity.

To panelist Dr. Iheoma Iruka, professor of public policy at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and founding director of the Equity Research Action Coalition, books are a powerful tool for education, exploration, and empowerment – starting from birth.

“If you’re an early child educator or early child professional, books are one of the ways that you shape children’s emotional regulation – how do you deal with trauma? How do you deal with loss of friends? You can use books to explore, where you can explore diversity, differences, issues of privilege, issues of racism, again from a child-centered kind of way,” says Dr. Iruka.

“And then, of course, books can be used to empower. We are now in a moment in time again, when books are being used as a tool of either oppression or power… And the fact that we’re actually at a point where books are being used as a tool of power means that we need to understand it’s not just about diversity of books. It’s also the access to books and also the access to particular books that speak to the humanity of different groups of people.”


Books have a crucial impact on children’s early brain development

The years from birth to age 5 are considered critical for a child’s brain development, so it’s no surprise that the messaging that children are exposed to during this time can form the foundation of their learning, social-emotional development, self-perception, and interpersonal relationships.

From dealing with hardships to practicing empathy, books teach children important lessons. As author Shabazz Larkin says, “If I need strength, if I need confidence, if I need self-love – our stories are what we turn to for those things.”

Reflecting on a memorable moment encountering diversity in media, Larkin says, “When I was in college, I came across an image by Kehinde Wiley, who’s my favorite artist, and… what he does is he goes around, and he takes pictures of Black people, and he has them pose like these Renaissance kingly [figures], and I remember seeing this as the moment where I went from liking making art to becoming an artist. Because when I saw this, I saw myself, I saw my hero, I saw the guy that I wanted to be when I was in high school… When I saw this, I wept – I cried for hours because he looked like me, and he looked like a king.”

Larkin also notes the importance of children seeing themselves in the routine, even mundane, everyday moments of literature; rather than constantly reading about fighting oppression, sometimes children simply want to read books about bees or playing with bubbles. (His 2019 children’s book, The Thing About Bees, is a letter from a father to his sons and a tribute to the importance of bees in our world.)


Diverse children’s literature needs to be produced – and it also needs to be distributed

After all, a tool is most important in the hands of those who can use it. That’s why organizations from nonprofits to large publishing companies are crucial in getting diverse children’s books into children’s hands. One of these organizations is First Book, a national nonprofit providing books and resources to kids in need, which works to move diverse children’s books through the publishing process and push the prices of those books down to ensure affordability and accessibility.

Too Small to Fail, through generous funding from the Dollar General Literacy Foundation and the Heising-Simons Foundation, has worked to distribute diverse books nationwide, including a donation of children’s books featuring diverse characters from Penguin, to be distributed through diaper banks and family courts.

In 2021, HarperCollins launched Heartdrum, a new imprint by Native American authors, of which Cynthia Leitich Smith serves as the author-curator. Like Larkin, she notes the importance of diverse literature made up of quotidian moments.

“When I first began doing school visits and other author events with young readers, I was struck by how many children consistently referred to Native people and Indigenous tribal nations only in the past tense. So, my writing and that of many of my Indigenous writing peers emphasizes that we have a past, yes, that continues to inform us, a present which is vital, but also a future – it’s inclusive of daily life narratives.”

Described by Early Learning Nation’s Mark Swartz as “one of the most dynamic webinars [he’d] attended since the start of the pandemic,” the conversations during the webinar left participants with other key takeaways, including how books serve as machines for belonging and respect – and how speaking to children through books means speaking to the whole family.

As children navigate their sense of identity, books can serve as a figurative shovel with which they can unearth who they truly are and how they fit in the world. Beginning at the earliest stages of development, children need to feel confident in who they are – and normalizing diverse representation in literature is key to achieving that goal.


Be part of the solution. Learn more about Too Small to Fail and how you can support Too Small to Fail’s work on this issue and so much more with a tax-deductible donation to the Clinton Foundation today.