5 books to read to your children that celebrate diversity

Perhaps, more than ever, we need to be teaching our children about diversity and race. Author, mother, and Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign founder Meena Harris shares her top picks.

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By Meena Harris

Of all the ways the COVID-19 pandemic has turned our lives upside down, the last thing I expected was how it would change my family’s reading habits.

Due to my severe asthma, I’m at a higher risk for illness from COVID-19. So, my partner and I have been cooped up at home with our two young daughters since the end of February. That’s almost a month before the rest of the Bay Area shut down.

We’re just grateful to be safe and healthy. But despite grand ambitions about using this time to chip away at the stack of books on my shelf, I’ve found that I’ve lost my appetite for reading almost completely. Between coronavirus and the protests against the police killing of George Floyd, the world is just too depressing and anxiety-inducing to do more than keep up with the news.

For our daughters, who are two and almost four years old, on the other hand, reading has become more important than ever—providing at least a little continuity and perspective in an otherwise disorienting world. But this has left my partner and I struggling even harder to find books that impart worthwhile lessons, lift up diverse voices, and connect our two inquisitive kids with the educational objectives we’ve set for them.

Meena Harris with her daughters.Courtesy of Meena Harris.

Unfortunately, good children’s books are a lot harder to come by—in large part because authors and publishers have been unable or unwilling to move beyond the simple archetypes they introduced in 1930, when Spot the dog and his owners, a young brother and sister named Dick and Jane, made their literary debut. Where TV shows like “Sesame Street”—and even animation like the Oscar-winning short film “Hair Love,” a favorite with our daughters—have made noteworthy progress when it comes to representation, much of popular children’s literature still remains stuck in a bygone era. In 2018, fewer than a third of all U.S. children’s books featured a person of color as a main character.

The result is that we keep getting essentially the same stories, featuring essentially the same (white, predominantly male) characters, over and over again.

After our girls were born, my partner and I searched far and wide for books that reflected more diversity and complexity than these tired archetypes. (And when we received books that fell short, we sometimes colored the characters’ skin with a brown marker.) We were heartened to find that, over the past few years, there’s been a burst of great children’s literature. We still have a long way to go to achieve full representation in kids books, but below are a few of our favorites.

I’m hopeful that in the long run, as more and more authors, publishers, caregivers, educators, and others demand books that reflect the lives of all young people, the children’s publishing industry will catch up to the needs that so many parents—like me—are feeling so acutely during this unsettled time.

Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea

By Meena Harris, Illustrated by Ana Ramírez González

Recommended age: 4-8

Read this if You want to talk to your kids about creating change in their community — and you want to see powerful black girls on your bookshelf!

In a nutshell … Two girl leaders that happen to be sisters work together to build a neighborhood play area in their apartment building’s unused courtyard. Based on a true story of my aunt and mom, Kamala and Maya show us the power of community and persistence.

Why I love it … I might be biased, but I love this book because it’s a message for everyone. We all have a role to play in improving our communities. We also know that books can challenge assumptions about the way our children see the world, and change the way they see themselves. That’s what I aimed to do with “Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea.”

Favorite quote: “No one could do everything. But everyone could do something.”

M Is for Melanin: A Celebration of the Black Child

By Tiffany Rose

Recommended age: 3-6

Read this if … You want to instill from a young age that black lives matter and black is beautiful.

In a nutshell … A spin on traditional ABC books for kids that honors and celebrates black children. F is for fresh, V is for Voice, W is for worthy.

Why I love it … This book is so joyful. As the mom of two black daughters, I love celebrating them and having them see themselves in the pages.

Favorite quote: “M is for melanin. shining in every inch of your skin. Every shade, every hue. All beautiful and unique.”

Under My Hijab

By Hena Khan, Illustrated by Aaliya Jaleel

Recommended age: 4-7

Read this if … You want more books that celebrate Muslim women and girls.

In a nutshell … A look into the world of a Muslim-American girl and the strong women in her life.

Why I love it … This book provides an introduction to hijabs for all readers. Exposing our kids to different cultures at a young age helps them to become empathetic, curious, and compassionate. The author even created a Teacher’s Guide to go along with the book.

Favorite quote: “Under my hijab, in a headband, or a clip with butterfly wings, my hair shines bright--like my future. I can’t wait to see what it brings.”

We Are Water Protectors

By Carole Lindstrom, Illustrated by Michaela Goade

Recommended age: 3-6

Read this if … You want to stand with indigenous communities and take care of our planet.

In a nutshell … Inspired by the many Indigenous-led movements across North America — many led by young people — this book asks us to take care of our planet and be respectful of the Indigenous people who call it home.

Why I love it … Another lesson that’s not just for kids, but also for readers of any age. What so many children learn in elementary school about our Indigenous communities is still so far from the truth. The United States has a long and shameful history when it comes to the treatment of indigenous people who long predated our founders, and it continues today. We all have a responsibility to be water protectors.

Favorite quote: “We are stewards of the Earth, our spirits have not been broken. We are water protectors.”

Just Ask!: Be Different, Be Brave, Be You

By Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Illustrated by Rafael López

Recommended age: 4-8

Read this if … You’ve ever struggled with how to talk about disability — or if you’ve experienced others struggling to talk to you.

In a nutshell … Framed by Justice Sotomayor’s personal experience with juvenile diabetes, the book celebrates our differences and encourages readers to start respectful dialogues.

Why I love it … It’s a kids book written by the incredible Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina ever appointed to the highest Court in the land. Need I say more?

Favorite quote: “Each of us grows in our own way, so if you are curious about other kids, just ask!”

Meena Harris is one of the most powerful and dynamic young leaders in America. As the founder of the groundbreaking Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign, she is a respected entrepreneur and is recognized as an influential voice for women's equality. Most recently, Meena was the Head of Strategy & Leadership at Uber, where she led brand transformation initiatives focused on corporate citizenship, customer loyalty, and employee engagement. In addition to Uber, she has advised major brands on diversity and inclusion. Meena also is an attorney with extensive experience in consumer protection, data privacy, and cybersecurity. Meena has been featured in The New York Times, AdWeek, Elle, and more. She is a graduate of Stanford University and Harvard Law School, and currently resides in San Francisco with her partner and two daughters.