Many people would agree that kids need to see themselves reflected in the books they read. Many would also agree that kids need to see the diversity of the world reflected in the books they read. Unfortunately, parents sometimes only think to act on the first of these statements; they seek out picture books that will reflect their own child’s life and experience and family. It’s only natural. I certainly sought out books for my kids that had two mums in them, just like they do. I looked for books with disabled characters because they have a disabled mum. I wrote a book with a transgender character because they have a transgender grandmother.
I’ve already observed the effect on my son and his peers, seeing no families like ours on TV or in books; my son asks why none of the kids on telly have two mummies like him, and he recently came home from childcare asking why some of the other children were insisting he had a mummy and a daddy.
So yes, making sure they see themselves and their family was my first concern, but it wasn’t my only one. For one thing, there are aspects of our childrens’ identities that we may not be aware of until they’re a bit older. I became disabled aged nine, and I had seen no positive depictions – no depictions at all – of disability in the books I’d read. I think it would have helped me to know that disabled people exist, that a disability is nothing to be ashamed or worried about, and that in fact it is an identity that a lot of people feel very proud of, and happy with.
My parents didn’t know I was bisexual when I was little, and my dad’s parents didn’t know she was trans. So reading books with LGBTI people, showing that they exist and are living happy lives as part of families and communities? That would have been helpful to both of us, as children. And to the parents reading to us too, perhaps.
Children shouldn’t only get that information in the form of an “issues book” when parents first become aware, or miss out entirely on seeing themselves in books until they’re adults. It should be woven into the stories they’re surrounded by as they grow up.
And most importantly perhaps, reading diverse picture books to all children, no matter who they are or may turn out to be, helps those children to live more happily and peacefully in diverse communities, and in a diverse world. It’s as simple as that. A lot of bigotry and bullying comes from a lack of understanding, and picture books are a great way to increase understanding. The ideas and values in the books we read as children stay with us throughout our lives. They become a part of us, and some books even become precious gifts that we pass on to our own children.
It gives me great joy to think that maybe my children, or other children out there reading diverse picture books, will feel a little less isolated and confused because the right books existed, and were placed in their hands as children. It gives me even more joy to think of those books being passed on to future generations.
Picture books are a way to introduce a love of reading, a way to improve literacy during childhood, and a way to entertain and bond with our children. They are also stories about the world, and by leaving things out of those stories, we send our children messages about what is and isn’t acceptable in our eyes. If we want our children to know that we are openminded, accepting people and that we want them to be too, thinking about the stories we choose to tell them matters. It really does.
I can’t wait to publish a story about a happy little girl with one leg, and read it to my kids. I’ll be writing it for them, and for a scared child who was about to have her leg amputated twenty-three years ago. I wish I could send it back in time.