Our nation’s children are increasingly diverse. Their books aren’t.

The 2020 U.S. Census reveals that 53% of the U.S. children’s population are children of color and more children than ever before identify as multiracial, yet the books that children see do not reflect that diversity. 

Out of 3,450 children’s books published in the U.S. in 2022 and reviewed by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, 493 have a Black/African American primary or significant secondary character (fiction) or human subject (nonfiction), setting, or topic; 369 feature Asian; 238 feature Latine; and 60 feature Indigenous peoples. These numbers fall far short of representing the more than half of America’s children who are children of color.

Growing up with a rich supply of diverse books is important for all young children’s healthy development. Research suggests that children begin to discern and make decisions about race as early as 3 months old.  Further research demonstrates that children’s development of early literacy skills (including the motivation to engage with books) are strongly connected to their later reading success. 

Building children’s motivation to access books and foster their identity as “readers” is too important to leave the current disparities unchallenged. Infants, toddlers and preschool-age children need the opportunity to grow up with books that accurately represent themselves, their families and their communities. School-age children who have access to books that accurately represent them, their families and their communities can learn to read while processing visual and textual information that is culturally familiar. In other words, children can bring their existing “funds of knowledge” to the processes involved in learning to read. 

While publishers have been making progress on elevating diverse content, those books are still too few and too expensive. In our diverse world, this puts all our children at a disadvantage – and this under-representation is especially inequitable for children in low-income communities, their families and the early childhood providers who support them – negatively impacting millions of children.  

Today, an imperfect storm has elevated the urgency to address this issue – and on a scale that matches the scope of the problem. Pandemic-related learning disruptions have had a dramatic impact. Reading scores hit a historic low; findings from the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reveal that more than two-thirds (68%) of U.S. fourth graders are not proficient in reading. And while all children were impacted, children of color are particularly affected. As the Annie E. Casey Foundation reports: in 2022, at least eight in 10 (84%) of Black fourth graders, 82% of American Indian fourth graders and 80% of Latino fourth graders were not proficient in reading. 

Changing the Plot

A Black parent and child celebrate "reach for the stars" while reading.

To accelerate book equity at the speed and scale required, we need new and bold cross-sector strategies to develop systemic solutions, laying the foundation for racial and educational equity during a child’s critical earliest years and the best positive outcomes for our nation’s children. 

We launched the Diverse Books for All Coalition in October 2022 to do just that — and change the plot for children’s book access and further book equity. The Coalition is a national consortium of nonprofits and member organizations that have joined forces to increase access to affordable, high-quality children’s books by and about diverse cultures, races, identities and abilities, with a focus on young children in their formative years, ages 0-8. We’ve already grown from 27 members at the launch date to 38 members today. 

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation provided the critical initial funding that allowed the Coalition to form and support the first 18 months of this deeply collaborative work. 

Access to beautiful, diverse books from an early age supports children’s positive self-identities, positive perceptions of other races and culture, and a sense of empathy for others, building an equity attitude and framework from the very beginning. In addition, positive self-identity is linked to school engagement and academic achievement. 

One of the best descriptions of the importance of diverse books comes from Professor Emeritus Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, who explained how multicultural children’s books serve as mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors:  

  • Mirrors are books that reflect different aspects of children’s identity, such as their race, their gender, their experience and their culture. 
  • Windows are books that allow children to look through and see other worlds and other people’s experiences that are different from their own.  
  • Sliding glass doors are those books that allow us to enter a whole new world. This helps develop children’s empathy for others.  

As Dr. Bishop explains, if children primarily or only have access to books that are mirrors reflecting their own lives, they get a false sense of the world. To provide children with the foundation to thrive in today’s diverse world, they need access to all of these books. 

That’s why the Coalition is focused on three issues: 

  1. The lack of access to affordable, quality children’s books by and about diverse cultures and races; 
  2. The need for a clear narrative about the value and benefits of diverse books, particularly in a period of growing challenges to the very books critical to children’s healthy development; and
  3. Support for parents, families and educators to effectively define, advocate for and integrate diverse books in their homes, programs and classrooms. 

On the first issue, the Diverse Books for All Coalition uses the collective market power of its members to affect change. Together, we represent more than 20 percent of the children’s retail market, which gives us significant leverage to increase the number, affordability and variety of diverse books.  

At the end of five years, the Diverse Books for All Coalition aims to double the number of affordable, quality children’s books by and about diverse cultures and races.

As part of this effort, the Coalition members are working together to purchase diverse titles in formats and in volumes that help drive down the costs of high-quality, diverse books. This is the first, field-wide collective purchasing effort of diverse books by a consortium of nonprofits. Our initial effort will get hundreds of thousands of Coalition-branded, beautiful, diverse books into the hands of young children, increasing access to books that more children can relate to and that allow them to see themselves, their families and their communities, and to learn about others.  

There’s more to this story

For members of the Coalition, the ability to directly impact children’s lives through the distribution of diverse books is only part of the story. Coalition members are driven by a desire to support early childhood educators, parents, families and others in ensuring they have the resources to build libraries of diverse books in homes and classrooms from the earliest ages, and by a commitment to center diverse books as an invaluable pathway and tool for conversations about diversity with young children. In addition, Coalition members are using the strengths of their networks to stand up for the importance of diverse books and diverse authors, and the underlying and foundational right that all children are seen and nurtured — and that their lived experiences are honored. 

What makes the Coalition’s efforts even more compelling is how we are doing this work.

The Diverse Books for All Coalition is spearheaded by the nonprofit First Book, which served as the initial convenor and catalyst behind the Coalition. And while First Book is supporting this with staff support and infrastructure, Coalition members co-own the initiative. That means co-directing and participating in work groups that are responsible for developing the collaborative’s strategies, timelines and impact measurement.

Our strength is not simply in our numbers. It’s in our shared values, our shared commitment to addressing racial equity and our shared understanding of just how urgent this work is. 

Today, nearly 40 nonprofits have joined forces to address the critical lack of affordable, diverse books, and to ensure that early childhood educators, families and other caregivers feel supported and have the resources they need. We are just beginning – and we are energized by the transformative power of this collective work to lift up diverse voices and lived experiences to benefit our children’s and our nation’s future. Now that we are at the table together, there are even more opportunities to explore how our collective action and shared strengths can be used to address common issues so that every child thrives.  

Lucy Recio, Senior Advisor at the National Association for the Education of Young Children, Robert Stechuk, Director, Early Childhood Education Initiatives for UnidosUS, and Kyle Zimmer, President and CEO of First Book, are among the members of the Diverse Books for All Coalition. You can follow the work of the Diverse Books for All Coalition on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram, and by signing up for the newsletter.

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