Today we are pleased to share this guest post from Librarian and Diversity Coordinator Laura Reiko Simeon on the power of book covers.
While the old chestnut about not judging a book by its cover is excellent advice when it comes to the people in our lives, books are another matter. I like to help my students appreciate all the work that goes into the creation of a book, including the often overlooked role of the designers who put so much effort into creating appealing covers.
This school year I had a conversation with a parent of a young student that touched me profoundly. She shared that her child, a South Asian boy, was bringing home from our school library a selection of books that made her curious as she couldn’t figure out what they had in common. She asked him how he decided what to borrow and he said that he looked for books “with brown people on the cover.” I was deeply moved because despite the fact that we still have a long way to go in terms of achieving equity in the publishing industry, there actually are enough diverse books out there for this to work as a selection strategy. This was certainly not the case when I was a small biracial girl staggering home each week with a teetering pile of library books, none of which included characters that looked anything like me or my family. It was also tangible evidence that my deliberate efforts to build an inclusive collection for my students were working, something that felt tremendously satisfying.
Unfortunately I then had a dispiriting exchange with a member of a committee for a state-wide children’s choice award. We conversed about their annual list of titles, which typically features only one diverse title, one that is consistently a depressing, didactic story of being oppressed and marginalized. Year after year the diverse book would come in dead last with the smallest number of votes from children, reinforcing a negative message both about difference and diverse literature. When I suggested choosing books that showed children of color having fun, enjoying life, and just being regular kids, the response I got was that it’s the fault of the publishers; there simply aren’t enough books like that out there. While I’d agree there aren’t yet as many as there should be, I’d also argue that there actually are enough to fill an entire slate of nominations if only you make the effort to look for them.
For the sake of all the children like my student, the ones who are eagerly scanning book covers in hopes of finding one about someone like themselves, I hope you will try. Here are a few diverse titles that will invite readers of all backgrounds to connect with their stories.
Juna’s Jar by Jane Bahk, illus. by Felicia Hoshino
Korean-American Juna feels bereft when her best friend Hector, a Latino boy, leaves town. Left without her playmate, Juna’s imagination goes wild as she turns her kimchi jar into an aquarium, a planter, and more. Later it serves as a catalyst for a new friendship when she meets a white girl at the park who wants someplace safe to put the caterpillar she just found! This is a delightful story set in a warmly diverse neighborhood.
Marisol McDonald and the Monster / Marisol McDonald y el monstruo by Monica Brown, illus. by Sara Palacios
What child isn’t sometimes afraid of the dark? Marisol McDonald, a spirited Peruvian-Scottish-American child who delights in her own originality but gets a bit carried away when she hears strange bumps in the night. Her family comforts and reasons with her, and Marisol even sews a colorful, cuddly monster doll of her own—but the noises persist! The humorous ending is a relief to everyone in this bilingual tale about a warm, loving, biracial and bicultural family.
Rainbow Weaver / Tejedora del arcoíris by Linda Elovitz Marshall, illus. by Elisa Chavarri
Inspired by a true story from Guatemala, this book features a resourceful little girl who desperately wants to weave on a loom like the grownup ladies. She experiments with grass and scraps of wool before realizing that the discarded plastic bags littering her village can be repurposed into colorful mats in traditional Mayan designs! This bilingual book sheds light on environmental issues while also evoking recognition in every child who likes to tinker and create.
Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World about Kindness by Donna Janell Bowman, illus. by Daniel Minter
Children have a natural affinity for animals, perhaps because they understand instinctively what it feels like to be helpless. This remarkable biography of former slave Doc Key, an African-American man who with patience and gentle methods taught his horse, Jim, to perform the most remarkable feats, will inspire young animal lovers. Doc’s courage and persistence in standing up for those who have no voice is a wonderful example to us all.
The Three Lucys by Hayan Charara, illus. by Sara Kahn
War is a difficult topic to present to young readers and many young American readers have never encountered a Lebanese, let alone Middle Eastern, family in a book. By focusing on an experience many children can relate to—the death of a beloved pet—this tale of a little boy who loses one of his three cats during the July War has universal appeal. The close-knit, loving family pulling together during a difficult time and the hopeful ending that shows grief giving way to happy memories makes this a reassuring and ultimately comforting tale.
The daughter of an anthropologist, Laura Reiko Simeon’s passion for diversity-related topics stems from her childhood spent living all over the US and the world. An alumna of the United World Colleges, international high schools dedicated to fostering cross-cultural understanding, Laura has an MA in History from the University of British Columbia, and a Master of Library and Information Science from the University of Washington. She lives near Seattle where she is the Diversity Coordinator and Library Learning Commons Director at Open Window School.