Building Libraries Where Everyone Has a Place on the Shelf

Building Libraries Where Everyone Has a Place on the Shelf

Do your kids see themselves in the books they read?



If your kids are part of a minority group in the United States, chances are they don’t! The majority of children’s books are written by white authors. There are not enough authors of color given publishing opportunities, not enough books on non-pain-point topics (think: most books on Jews revolve around the Holocaust or many books with African American characters show them as slaves) & not enough diverse main characters.




There are many reasons why we lack diverse books, but the situation is improving! In the meantime, let’s make sure our libraries are as diverse as possible.


Diverse books should matter to everyone whether or not you have minority status. The world is all around us & our kids are part of the world.


Our libraries should be places where children can learn about their world and the world at large. Children should see themselves, their friends and family, their neighbors and teachers, and the world in the books in their classroom, school and public library, in book stores, and at home.


Rudine Sims Bishop, professor at Ohio State University, uses the metaphor of diversity in children’s books as both a mirror and a window. A mirror symbolizes the ability to see ourselves in the book while a window is a way to see into another world with people who may be different from us. This is important because we learn from the stories we hear & see. We create our values around them too.


On Lee & Low’s blog The Open Book (which I LOVE!), Hannah Ehrlich references Bishop’s lens and states, “All children need both. Too often children of color and the poor have a window into mostly white & middle- and upper-class window”. I’d like to add that children also need doors. Such a door would be made of sliding glass and it would allow everyone entrance into and between different worlds and cultures.


Not only do we (anyone who cares about children) need to build diverse libraries for children of color, we need to include all marginalized people on our book shelves. Whether it be LGBTQ+ or Jews or Native voices there is room on the shelf for everyone.



If you do not see yourself in the books you read at home, in your classroom, & at your library, are you valued? It’s difficult to feel seen when you’re absent from the stories your parents, teachers, & librarians share with you.



Out in the World


What do you want for your kids?


We wanted our daughter to love books! To learn about people who were different from her, people who live in places she could never dream of and people who lived different lives than hers.


My husband and I wanted this for her for a few reasons:

  1. When she went out into the world, she’d do so with a sense of wonder and curiosity, empathy and understanding.
  2. When she went out into the world, she’d be a little more comfortable in it.
  3. When she went out into the world, she would feel that she was a part of it and had a place in it.


Twenty-eight years ago, there were many, many books where she could see herself. She loved Madeline, Matilda and, later, Katniss.


There was, however, one glaring omission for her. Our daughter never fully saw herself in these books and the hundreds of others we read to her, bought for her, and later – the books she read to herself and read in school. What is the omission? None of the characters were Jewish. They were white, but none were her religion. Her dad is not Jewish, he’s Catholic.  My daughter could easily find him, her Nona & her Papa in books, but nowhere was her life truly and fully reflected.  The books that did have Jewish characters were mostly about the Holocaust, Hanukkah or Passover.


One early December my daughter, who was around 6 years old, was walking with my husband and I as we made our way through a snowy main street of shops. An older couple stopped to talk to her. The women bent down and asked our daughter what she asked Santa for Christmas. She replied that she was Jewish and did not ask Santa for anything. Well the lady began wailing that this was a terrible. My daughter thought there was something wrong with her, but I was angry.



Role Models


Children need to see adults engaged in diverse reading both at home and school. This is why I read to my class (no matter what grade level I taught, including high school and graduate school) and why I read while my students read.


I was teaching middle school when A Series of Unfortunate Events was first published. I made time, daily, for independent reading. I’d set the timer after book selections took place, and we would just read. My students knew to not stop reading or bother anyone, including myself, for any reason other than:


  1. Someone was bleeding.
  2. Someone was about to throw up.
  3. The room was on fire.


Well, this book was so good that I kept reaching over and added time on the timer. I used one of those old-fashioned kitchen timers, the kind that woke the dead when they went off. When I noticed that the school day was almost over, I allowed the timer to jar us out of our reading. One student raised his hand to tell me that he saw me changing the timer and wanted to know why.


I explained that the book was just too good to put down. I asked if there was a book they felt the same way about. Names of wonderful books were called out:  Where the Red Fern Grows, Salt in His Shoes, Maniac McGee, Number the Stars, and more! Then I realized these were the books I read aloud to them this year.


Teachers need to put down their work and read during independent reading time and during lunch duty and while on bus duty. If there are students near, a book should be in your hand. Children need to see your love of reading on display. Your enthusiasm will be contagious. The same applies to parents, grandparents, and siblings. Now, before you pick that new book, there are a few questions I’d like you to ask yourself…





Ask Yourself These Questions Before Buying One More Book




  1. Do I read diverse books? If so, is there a group I’m leaving off my list?


  1. Do I provide a wide selection of diverse books both non-fiction and fiction? Are they on various reading levels? (I am not saying level your classroom library, post every child’s reading level and only allow them to read from this level!)


  1. Are the authors on my shelves diverse in order to hear authentic voices?


  1. If I have diverse and inclusive books, do they portray people of color & minority religions in positive or stereotypical ways?


  1. When holding a book fair and visiting book stores, do they provide a wide choice?


  1. Kiersten Greene, on, suggests we conduct an equity audit by asking: Whose voices are privileged? Whose voices are silenced? For whom are the texts written? What is not being said? What is being amplified? What is being forgotten? Do all roads lead to whiteness?


{ Want a free copy of your own Equity Audit questions? Click below & I’ll send you an expanded version! }



Carol Jago, in her recent book, The Book in Question, said “We are living in an increasingly polarized world. Books offer access to lives and stories outside the boundaries of our limited first-hand experience. Without those stories, it can be difficult to empathize with others. And without empathy, I fear we are doomed.” Teachers, librarians, parents- anyone who spends time with kids can promote the love of reading, in fact it’s a moral imperative.


Rethinking My Book Choices


Maya Angelou always said, “When you know better, you do better.”  The books I read aloud to my students has changed. The books on my shelves are changing and the books I read in order to “bless” (recommend) them to students have already changed.


Though my daughter is an adult, I reflect on the choices I brought home when she was little. Back then, one of our favorite books was The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, but to be honest, we didn’t notice the main character was black, we simply enjoyed his story. We loved it so much that during one of 16 snow storms of 1996, we recreated the book using a camera (no cell phones yet) & a blank book. My daughter loved becoming the main character. Her favorite ‘scene’ was the snowball melting in her bed.


Later I would read about Keats and discover that this 1962 picture book was one of the first to have a realistic black child in a mainstream picture book. I was intrigued so I read more about the author, who was Jewish, but had changed his last name from Katz to Keats due to rampant anti-Semitism. Keats said, “My book would have him there simply because he should have been there all along”.  I love that!


I sometimes still struggle to find diverse books for the schools & classrooms where I consult. Either I’m coaching teachers, instructional coaches & administrators or I’m providing professional development (the kick #ss kind) or I’m working with struggling readers.


Bree’s Book Bus, the non-profit we partner with, also struggles to find diverse titles. They provide free books to those kids living in “book deserts” } those places where the public library has closed and book stores have never opened.



A Few Resources to Build Your Diverse Library


  1. Lee and Low Books- About everyone, For Everyone is the largest publisher of multicultural books in the United States. They are minority-owned and are an independent company who publishes books that make a difference. There are resources on their site for teachers, but the most exciting part for me as a reading specialist, is their culturally diverse guided reading books and their insightful blog. Visit them here:


  1. Cinco Puntos Press carries bilingual books for both adults and children.


  1. Road Runner Press has both fiction and nonfiction books for young readers focusing on the American West and America’s Native Nations.


  1. Matt de la Peña, a New York Times and Newbery Award winning author has written books at varying interest and reading levels. From picture books, Last Stop on Market Street and Love to young adult novels such as Mexican Whiteboy, Matt connects us to another culture.


  1. Kirsten’s article: The Overwhelming Whiteness of Transitional Chapter Series Books


  1. The American Library Association published a two-page list of book awards that celebrate diversity:


  1. The American Library Association also has a list of curated books that help children & teens learn about the GLBTQ community & issues surrounding it. See their site for a roundtable of resources as well.


  1. For children & teen books dealing with the Jewish experience, the Association of Jewish Libraries oversees the Sydney Taylor Book Award. visit for the current winners & more information.



Action is Needed-Now




How do you invite all of your children inside the world of books using mirrors, windows, & doors?

Do you know of a great resource for diverse books?

Let’s help one another- post a comment below!




Post your thoughts, ideas, and questions below, but 1st here are a few rules:


  1. This site is a place for educators & parents to get information that can transform themselves, their classrooms, and their schools & their children so don’t post unsolicited links to discounted underwear or garden hoses that won’t kink.
  2. Feel free to state a differing opinion, but do so in a helpful way. I’ve worked in too many places where people argue just to impress themselves. This gets us nowhere and reminds me why I left the last school district running with my hair on fire never to return.
  3. No cursing. I’m from Jersey and can curse much better and louder than you can.
  • Lynda kr
    Posted at 01:47h, 24 June Reply

    Diversity also includes people with different abilities. Many books that have characters who live with disabilities are either pitied, heroes, or strangely overly stereotypical. One of my favourite books with a child with a disability is Zoom by Robert Munch. While the book is over the top in its silliness it is no different than other books by the author that over exaggerate common childhood situations for the book to be humorous. I want a monster truck style motorized wheelchair! Deaf kids need to see themselves in stories, blind kids need to hear themselves in stories, autistic kids need to experience themselves in stories, All kids should experience a bit of themselves in a book

    • iluvbks3
      Posted at 12:06h, 31 July Reply

      Lynda, Thank you for adding to the discussion in such an important way. While I love Munch, I was unaware of his book, Zoom. I’m heading to the book store right now!

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