The popular children’s song by Raffi, called “Like Me And You” is supposed to be about how we’re all alike. For years it has irritated me to no end. My family loves Raffi, particularly his song, “Baby Beluga”, but Raffi doesn’t love us. He shows no sign of ever having considered a family like ours. “Like Me And You” names children from countries around the world, saying “Each one is much like another / The child of a mother and a father”.
When my son was about two years old and we listened to the song for the first time, we paused after that lyric to explain that Raffi forgot our family. And then we proceeded to sing loudly on each repetition, “The child of a DADA and a PAPA”.
It’s important for children who belong to marginalized or underrepresented communities to have access to books and other media with characters that are like them and their families. I’m a transgender guy in a gay relationship, and I want my kids to read books that include two-mom or two-dad families, or characters who express their gender as non-binary or trans.
I also desperately want my kids’ friends who come from typical mom-and-dad families to see families like mine reflected in the literature they read. Kids notice everything. All our kids will notice if every single book they read is about a family with a mom and a dad, and they will naturally extrapolate that families like mine, which are not in the books, are lesser than, not worth featuring.
The same goes for race, ethnicity, culture, and (dis)ability. Kids notice skin colour, whether parents like it or not. If all the good guys on TV are white, and the bad guys are Black, kids will absorb that and it will become part of their worldview. I need my able-bodied, neurotypical white kids with blue eyes and blond hair to access books that feature main characters including those in wheelchairs, or who are nonverbal, who are indigenous and people of colour. This is one of my most important parenting jobs in my journey to raise decent, anti-racist (simply non-racist is not good enough) human beings.
Today I’m writing in celebration of my little collection of diverse children’s books, magazines, and music. I have built it thoughtfully over the last few years. It is by no means exhaustive but I do feel that each work on this list is valuable in its own right as a piece of literature and art, as well as including and centering marginalized voices. Sometimes it can be hard to tell from a glance online whether a “diverse” book is truly as diverse as it claims, or even if the story, writing, and illustrations are decent. I hope that sharing some of the legwork I’ve done will be helpful to others.
Do you have favourite diverse kids’ books not on this list? Please mention them in the comments!
All the books on this list have indigenous authors. (Yes, white people are still publishing books about indigenous people written by white people. Beware of those.)
Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox by Danielle Daniel
Ages 2 and up
This book is dedicated “to the thousands of Métis and Aboriginal children who grew up never knowing their totem animal.” Each page spread depicts a different totem animal in the Anishinaabe tradition and describes the animal’s character.
My toddler, like many her age, loves animals. “Fox Book”, as she calls it, was her first true favourite book. My 6-year-old gets a lot out of the rich, descriptive vocabulary, including words like, “confident”, “purposeful”, “delicate,” and “intuitive.”
My Heart Fills With Happiness by Monique Gray Smith, illustrations by Julie Flett
Singing, drumming, baking bannock, and holding hands are among the beautiful (and easy to sound out!) activities that “fill my heart with happiness.” My toddler loves it and my six-year-old is capable of reading it to her. Win/win. Illustrations show kids who indigenous children will notice look like themselves.
Indigenous Dwellings of Canada: A Colouring Book published by Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre
This booklet states it may be copied for educational, non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given to the publisher, so you can order a copy and share with friends. Each page spread depicts a different indigenous dwelling and includes a written explanation of the dwelling’s features. We’ve read it and looked at it at length with our six-year-old because there is so much to explore, but he hasn’t coloured in it yet.
The Raven and the Loon by Rachel and Sean Qitsualik-Tinsley, illustrated by Kim Smith
An Inuit story told by Inuit story-tellers. A toddler can begin to grasp the narrative through the bright pictures and direct emotional language, but there’s plenty going on to keep my six-year-old interested.
The Thundermaker written and illustrated by Alan Syliboy
Most amazing illustrations ever! The artist lives in Millbrook First Nation in Nova Scotia, and draws inspiration from the Mi’kmaw petroglyph tradition as well as mixed-media work. In this story, Little Thunder learns about the importance of making thunder for his people, and makes some dramatic mistakes along the way. The simple sentences are packed with action, like throwing around thunderbolts, holes that open up to swallow monsters, and animals and objects that change form.
The Rainbow Serpent by Dick Roughsey
I picked up this book at an airport in Australia. It was the only book in the store about an aboriginal story that wasn’t written by some white guy descended from colonizers. Despite being published by an imprint of HarperCollins, it has a few obvious typos. Nevertheless, my six-year-old and I LOVE this book. It tells an exciting story, in Aboriginal tradition of Australia, about how the land was formed into the hills and mountains of today, and how some people turned into different species of animals. The narrative explains that since animal species originated from humans, we must always protect them; these animals came from us and are our relatives. This offers a way of understanding the human relationship to the environment that contrasts sharply with assumptions inherent in capitalist, Christian-dominated society.
Missing Nimama by Melanie Florence, Illustrated by Francois Thisdale
Parents need to pre-read this one before deciding if it is appropriate for their kid. The story is about a child whose mother is missing, like far too many missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada. The narrative shifts perspective subtly between the child, the missing mother, and the grandmother in a way that will probably be confusing for most kids under age eight or so. I hand this book (and a tissue) to most adults who come to visit us. It’s a hard, sad read that we absolutely must read to bring awareness to the crisis of missing and murdered aboriginal women. This book reminds us that these women have families – they are daughters, sisters, and mothers who are deeply missed.
When the Rain Sings: Poems by Young Native Americans edited by Lee Francis
The poems in this collection, published in 1999, were written by Native kids ages 7 to 17. These young poets tackle a wide range of topics from sunshine, sunset, and raindrops to missing family members, changing or lost culture, and police. A photograph accompanies each poem (examples include a traditional cradleboard, a camp scene from 1890, and dancers in 2006). One direct and brutally honest poem by a 17-year-old begins with, “My name belongs to a dead white woman. How it got down to me?” The poet goes on to describe the meaning of her aboriginal name, Spotted Feather.
Daddy, Papa and Me, by Leslea Newman, Illustrated by Carol Thompson
Daddy, Papa, and Me are a Caucasian, two-dad family that have a busy day full of activities. By the end of it, Daddy and Papa are exhausted. This board book has decent rhymes and is suitable for babies, toddlers or kids learning to read and sound out simple words.
And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, Illustrated by Henry Cole
Based on a true story about two male penguins that hatched an egg and raised a chick together at a zoo in Central Park, New York City. The illustrations are beautiful, and the story is interesting and informative. The human families depicted visiting the zoo are ethnically diverse.
What Makes a Baby, by Cory Silverberg, Illustrated by Fiona Smyth
We relied heavily on this book to explain the creation of baby number two to our first child. Silverberg explains about the uterus, sperm, and eggs, but doesn’t connect them to genders or “mommy” and “daddy.” What Makes a Baby works for everyone, including folks who make their families using assisted reproductive technology or surrogacy, as well as lesbian couples and transgender men who carry a pregnancy. The narrative also explains both vaginal (“through a part of the boy that most people call the vagina”) and surgical births.
My only (slight) complaint has to do with consent and medical procedures. One sentence in the book reads, “Sometimes a midwife or a doctor will be the one to say it is time for the baby to be born.” Ideally, I’d prefer a more nuanced phrasing that includes some mention of the parent whose body is doing the gestating and birthing.
Rainbow Train (CD) by Chana Rothman
The music on this album is of such decent quality that the professional musicians in our household can mostly tolerate the fact that the toddler insists on listening to it on repeat in the car (for months now). Musical styles include hip-hop, pop, folk, and disco. For those who need to know, the pitch and rhythm are excellent and phrasing is capable.
The songs celebrate gender diversity and also provide kids with some words to deal with dogma they might encounter. For example, a kid on one track explains that, “there’s no such thing as boy colours or girl colours.” Songs also mention historical figures who challenged norms and changed our society.
We’ve been listening to Rainbow Train for a few years, and the kids get more and more out of it as they mature. Both my kids thought for a LONG time that the lyric “gender, gender gender, put it in a blender” was all about blending up some ginger. I recently explained to the six-year-old that the lyric is, in fact, GENDER, and we talked about the difference between gender and sex.
Gina’s Wheels, by Mary Harelkin Bishop
Gina’s Wheels addresses disability explicitly. As in, the whole book is entirely focused on disability, which is okay-ish, though I ought to hunt around for some books that simply include disabled characters being who they are.
Gina, an able-bodied young girl with orange hair, becomes fascinated with wheelchairs after meeting the Paralympian Colette Bourgonje. We learn about Colette’s injury and her tremendous athletic achievements, which, again, is okay-ish. However, I need to find some stories with disabled characters that aren’t all about achieving physical prowess despite disability (known as the disabled hero, or “supercrip” narrative).
When Gina goes to kindergarten and meets a classmate in a wheelchair, she is ready to be friends. D’aww. The classroom includes a girl wearing a hijab and a Black boy, but they don’t say words or have roles in the narrative. All the main characters are Caucasian.
Books that fit into more than one category!!!
What?! What will we do?
Yes, it’s true. There are some books that celebrate a wonderful range of diversity on more than one level.
Everywhere Babies, by Susan Meyers, illustrated by Marla Frazee
This sweet board book is lovely for babies, toddlers, kids who are learning to read, and those expecting new siblings. The text highlights all the different ways that babies are loved and cared for by their families and caregivers. The illustrations include two mom and two dad families, grandparent caregivers, teenage caregivers, and male caregivers in addition to the more common mom-and-dad family unit. There are depictions of Asian, Brown, Black (some with natural African hairstyles), and Caucasian children and families. One of my favourite pages describes the many ways babies are fed, including pictures of breastfeeding, bottlefeeding, cup feeding, spoon feeding, and beginning solid foods (along with giant messes!).
Under the Love Umbrella by Davina Bell, Illustrated by Allison Colpoys
This is a story about feeling connected to our loved ones, when we are excited, scared, shy, hesitant, tired, or even apart. No matter where you are, you’re always under your loved one’s “love umbrella”. The illustrations are bright and detailed. The main characters depicted include people of colour and a two-mom family.
This is sold as a “magazine for girls age 5 to 10”, but we all need to get it for our boys, too. My boy needs to see representations of strong, intelligent, creative, powerful women just as much as my girl does. If we’re ever going to improve on our patriarchal rape culture, surely we must educate our boys.
I LOVE this mag. It comes out 4 times per year and includes stories, poems, articles, word puzzles, colouring, and lots of suggested activities. Every item in the magazine is girl or woman-focused. For instance, January’s issue was all about building stuff, and included an interview with a female engineer.
The editor’s approach is obviously intersectional, and care is taken to include women from typically underrepresented groups. In the last issue we received, a story featured a girl in a wheelchair as a main character. Unlike Gina’s Wheels, disability was not the focus of the story, but was incorporated into the narrative. As readers, we got a sense of how disability made the girl’s lived experience different from the world of able-bodied folks – without making her into a rarified hero or a pitiful dependent.
Fair warning to parents: My 6-year-old needs plenty of help in reading this mag and trying out the various projects. There’s lots to discuss and not much that he can do alone at his age.
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