As a preschooler, my daughter loved Don and Audrey Wood’s The Little Mouse, The Red Ripe Strawberry, and The Big Hungry Bear. She strongly identified with the mouse’s love of strawberries and fearful demeanor when threatened. She also appreciated the surprising way the mouse found to overcome his fear.
Storybooks serve as spiritual mirrors and windows for children. My daughter saw herself reflected in the mouse’s timid yet determined demeanor and his anxiety. And she glimpsed a new possibility for handling her own fears through the mouse’s modeling of a creative solution.
Young children are particularly primed to notice and wonder about similarities and differences. They learn about the world through collecting information and comparing that data with what they already know. While they are drawn to people and characters that reflect their characteristics and experiences, they are also curious about diversity. A storybook collection that features diverse characters fuels their exploration.
Just reading books provides a starting point, but learning about diverse authors helps children connect a story’s characters with a real human. Find videos online of authors reading their own books and share them with children. Research authors’ backgrounds and weave pertinent facts into your read-aloud sessions. Provide a photo of the author if there isn’t one on the book cover. Dress up like the author or give each child a photo sticker to wear during reading time.
As children notice similarities between authors and their characters, they will also begin to realize that connections can happen across physical and social categories. A girl might discover that a boy character is scared of bugs too. An Asian child might realize that a Black character also has distinctive eyes. Children who have recently moved might pick up on ways in which their experience mirrors an immigrant’s transition to a new country.
Encouraging children to use books as windows to diverse experiences is also important. Explicitly ask them to identify differences, and then wonder together about how those differences contribute to the character’s way of seeing and acting in the world. Model an affirming attitude toward difference by inviting children to celebrate what sets a character apart from them. Also, use comparable language (e.g., “some people cry when they are scared and other people run away”) when describing different actions or traits so that each receives equal weight.
If you want children to explore diversity in more depth, consider doing an author study. Many authors write several books linked to a favorite theme or topic. Nina Crews and Vanessa Brantley-Newton celebrate childhood and Black experience, Grace Lin focuses on Asian American life, and Yuyi Morales affirms Latinx culture. As you read through a particular collection, encourage children to pay close attention to the characters and how they are different from them. You might even act out the stories so children have a chance to embody the characters and their differences.