Recommended Children's Literature
I'm often asked for recommendations for children's literature. Each time this happens, I ask for specificity - what do you want to teach/focus on and who do you teach? What you teach happens in a particular context, so knowing who you're teaching and how you teach is just as important for me to understand before I can make any recommendations.
Illustration by David Huyck, in consultation with Sarah Park Dahlen, 2019
It is important to recognize that social studies curriculum in general, and children's literature in particular, often follow popular narratives (usually supporting American progress and a post-racial society) with happy endings that overwhelmingly focus on white, monolingual English speaking, heterosexual, cisgender, Christian men. I believe teachers, parents, and the public need to demand greater diversity in the curriculum so that students are exposed to a broader range of narratives that better represent the country, and world, in which we live. I often draw on the work of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop:
“Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation and readers often seek their mirrors in books... When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part.”
Thus, knowing about a teacher's classroom is essential to determining what mirrors, and windows, students are already exposed to and what they need more of. I know it's easy to rely on recommended book lists, but often these lists aren't vetted by people who are looking for stereotypes or who are thinking about whether the author is a cultural insider who might have expert knowledge on the topic. Some books have wons awards, from the Newbery to the Carter G. Woodson award, yet still contain problematic narratives, so simply looking at best-sellers or award winners isn't enough to ensure that a book is explicitly anti-racist and accurate. Instead, I suggest following children's literature experts who are trained in such issues on social media. If you're on Twitter, these brilliant folks will get you started: @readingspark @booktoss @mike_jung @ofglades @debreese @crazyquilts @latinosinkidlit
Here are some websites that I do trust that contains well-vetted book lists:
- The Conscious Kid
- American Indians in Children's Literature
- Social Justice Books by Teaching for Change
- We Need Diverse Books
- Raising Luminaries: Books for Littles
- Lee & Low: Trauma-Informed Diverse Reading List
- Angie Manfredi's Wakelet of Early Chapter Books w/BIPOC characters by BIPOC authors
You can also look for hashtags like #WeNeedDiverseBooks, #DiversityJedi, and #OwnVoices. Here is my collection of recommended Asian American children's literature with summaries and reading levels; it is by no means comprehensive, but these are books I highly recommend in terms of content and authenticity. The Carolina Asia Center also has a fantastic, searchable database of books about Asians and Asian Americans.
I recently stumbled across author Grace Lin's blog and a post by Irene Rideout about Tikki Tikki Tembo, a book that always felt problematic to me but I couldn't quite pinpoint why. This is a fascinating read that articulates why representation and cultural authenticity are critical in children's literature. If you are a white teacher trying to understand what all this means for your students of color, consider reading this article. For an author's take on why authenticity and accuracy matter, check out this piece by Margarita Engle.