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Choosing “good” picture books featuring diverse (BIPOC) characters

Talking Race and Kids

If you're a parent who understands the importance of seeking out picture books that feature Black and Indigenous People and People of Color (BIPOC) -- offering children, as Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop phrased it, “mirrors and windows” to the world -- it can still be challenging to know how to choose a good book from among what’s increasingly available on the “diverse books” market.

Watch this conversation with the founders of Diverse BookFinder. They give their practical advice about how you can move beyond simply avoiding stereotypical portrayals to find great picture books featuring BIPOC your child is likely to enjoy.

This conversation happened on 4/28/20. The transcript, a bonus Q&A and more resources follow.

EmbraceRace: If you're here you've probably been looking for books that feature characters of color, indigenous characters, black characters. And have a hard time finding good ones, have a hard time finding maybe ones that don't tell the same story over and over. Are having a hard time finding those that speak to the particular children in your home, in your neighborhood, in your school, in your library. We're here with folks who've sort of created a tool that's really helpful in finding and pairing those people with those books that they're meant to read, and so we're excited to talk about that.

Krista Aronson

Krista Aronson

I want to introduce our guests. Krista Aronson is a co-founder and the Director of Diverse BookFinder and a professor of Psychology at Bates College. Her work focuses on eliminating how people come to understand complex social structures like race and ethnicity, including how children process and understand race as well as appropriate, effective, and productive ways to discuss this topic with them. Specifically the effective use of picture books to enhance intercultural relationships and self-understanding during childhood. Her own identity as a biracial woman deeply informs her work. The Diverse BookFinder and associated work are the focus of her active research which represents a substantial portion of the professional efforts of the faculty at Bates College. Welcome, Krista.

We’re also going to be talking to Anne Sibley O'Brien, who also a co-founder of Diverse BookFinder. She's an award-winning author and illustrator of many children’s books whose work has been cited for attention to authentic cultural details. Her lifelong focus on human difference including multicultural literature, diversity of leadership and anti-racism was sparked by her experience of being raised bilingual and bicultural [as a White American] in South Korea. Anne, welcome. Thank you so much for being here.

Anne Sibley O'Brien: Thank you. We're so honored.

EmbraceRace: So Diverse BookFinder. It's a collection of diverse children's books, a comprehensive one. It's also a tool for finding individual books, but also for analyzing a whole collection, if you're looking at things at the school level or the library level. Before we get into all that, I want to know sort of personally why you're so invested in this work?

Krista Aronson: Absolutely.

I'm a psychologist. I'm a personality psychologist. I got my PhD from the University of Michigan - "Go Blue" to all the Wolverines out there! And in that work, I studied identity development among African American teenagers, and the role that parents play in that identity development process. And so, I was trucking along with that work, got my job at Bates, worked on those data while I was working toward tenure. But, you know, I had moved to Maine, right. So not as many African American families to work with, certainly not the hundreds that I had access to in the state of Michigan.

And so, when I hit tenure, I had an opportunity to really rethink what I wanted to do, and how I wanted to do it in my new context, in my new home state of Maine. And that kind of came together with some experiences my daughter was having in her elementary school around children interacting across racial, cultural, and religious difference. And so, I took that moment to think about how I could use my training, and my skills, and my position at an educational institution to contribute to an understanding of how we can affect children's ability- their attitude, development, and their ability to get along with one another. And that's how I got into picture books. They're a great bridge and vehicle for that, and we can talk more about that as we move through.

My role at the Diverse BookFinder, I am the Director. I'm Co-Founder with Annie along with Brenna Callahan, who's an alum of Bates College. That means I oversee all aspects of the work, and I bring my kind of researcher and psychological lens to that.

EmbraceRace: Great. Thank you, Krista. Anne?

Anne Sibley O'Brien

Anne Sibley O'Brien

Anne Sibley O'Brien: The path that brought me here started with my upbringing in Korea. And two things that I think that were most significant there were the experience of racialization, of becoming intensely aware of race and culture, both in my own identity and in the world, and then a global perspective. And both of those things I took into my work as I began to get published, and so my books had to have all kinds of kids because that's what the world looks like. I was simultaneously doing a lot of anti-racism work, and then focusing on multicultural children's picture books, not mine but the field, and doing workshops for teachers. I was always keeping my eye on what's being published in the 1980s.

Fast forward to meeting Krista. When she began her research, she invited me in as a community advisor to help to develop the books. Because we were examining what we call Cross Group books, which is books that show two characters from different backgrounds having a positive experience together. The groups that Krista's research was looking at was white children in Maine and Somali American children in Maine, white American children. And there were no books, so we had to create our own research materials. Krista invited me to help create those picture books. Not great literature, but research materials. Then Krista I continued to do workshops for teachers on diverse books and kept talking and then started collecting and coding. And it just led to this, and here we are.

My role at Diverse BookFinder is I bring primarily the perspective and knowledge about the children's book field and kind of as a liaison to that. I think one of the most important pieces doing this work is to have a critical race lens. I mean, the whole Diverse Books Movement is a critique of whiteness, so we have to understand how whiteness works. Especially as a white person. I'm not the only one doing that, but that's one of the most significant pieces. We also need to be able to address the fact that people using these books, for instance, the majority of teachers and majority of the librarians are white. And so, we have to be able to develop support for and build understanding and awareness in those audiences.

EmbraceRace: Thank you, Anne. Well, let's talk about what this is. Earlier, I mentioned We Need Diverse Books (WNDB). Diverse BookFinder sounds similar, it has "book," and "diverse" in it. But I know they're different and you obviously know that they're quite different efforts. I mentioned that you make a really unique contribution, so I wonder if you could talk about, we've heard about where it is coming from, where the impulse is. You can talk about what you've actually done and what people who go and explore the site and use the tool, et cetera, can find.

And just to flag it, I definitely also want to come back to what's at stake? Which, again, you both touched on, you, especially Krista. Probably everyone in this audience, and certainly we have this intuitive sense that it really matters, and we've probably heard about windows and mirrors. I think what we don't have is your sense, Krista, especially as a researcher, of what's at stake. I'm just planting that flag, definitely to come back to it. But first tell us more about Diverse BookFinder. What did you do?

Krista Aronson: Great. I'm happy to talk about that, and I think I'll screen share the website in a moment just because that's probably the easiest way to show you, rather than just tell you. Well here, I'll just take you to the screen.

Disparities in Representation

Krista Aronson: So what are we? Well, we're a circulating collection of physical books, over 3,000 picture books, trade books, published since 2002 featuring human characters of color, BIPOC characters. And that's a circulating collection, anyone can check those books out through interlibrary loan from anywhere in the world. We're also a search tool, and I'll show you that in a moment, and we also focus on critical data. And so, when I think about multicultural picture books, when I came to this work, I was really interested in thinking about who was represented and who wasn't represented, looking for gaps. We do, on our website, share data from our book coding that talks about who is represented and who is not. And so, for instance, you can see MENA characters - Middle Eastern North African and Arab characters - represent a very small portion of BIPOC books.

And so, these numbers account for books featuring Black and Indigenous people and People Of Color (BIPOC) exclusively. And within that band, only 3% feature MENA characters. And so we think about who is represented and we want to encourage and provide data that can be used as point of advocacy and also offers some direction in ways in which this literature can grow.

So getting the numbers of who was represented up is really important, but to me that's only part of it. When I got into this work, I noticed that even within one group of characters, there's often a limited story being told. And so, for instance, if I click on this radio button for Asian Pacific Islander and Asian American people's, I can take a look at the live data that we share all the time, every time we add a book, these numbers have the potential to shift.

Diverse Book Finder

Krista Aronson: We can see that the majority, 45% of the books, are what we call Beautiful Life books. Which are stories where culture is central to the story. So they explicitly focus on the diverse expressions of Asian and Asian-American people, Asian descended people. And that's wonderful, we certainly need these windows into other cultures when we think about representation within multicultural picture books. But it also runs the risk of saying that that's all there is to being a member of the Asian community. And it starts to emphasize that single story about a group, not really thinking about all of the representations of Asianness that can take place within picture books. And so, we think about who is represented in multicultural picture books, and we also think about how using nine categories that come from a research grounded theory approach that were developed with Annie and Brenna.


Subcategories within Race/Culture Category used at DBF

EmbraceRace: I love that example of Beautiful Life, your category, for Asian/Pacific Islander/Asian American characters. We got a related question about someone asking for books that feature Asian/Pacific Islander/Asian American characters that aren't about food. For example, that's a problem people are running into, right?

Krista Aronson: That's a great example. And so, part of what we do in sharing our data is we hope that it can illuminate other stories that can be told. I think the same thing is true when you look at books featuring African American, African descended characters. They tend to focus on stories of oppression, and they tend to focus their stories on slavery and civil rights. And so, while it's important for children to learn about these historical oppressions, and it's important for children to think about what's eaten in a culture that may differ from their own, it runs the risk of miscommunicating to children that, for instance, oppression is over and done. That's a thing that happened long ago and we don't have to think about that anymore. Or that somehow, for the example of Beautiful Life, that somehow culture is other, and it's not part of, or cannot be part of mainstream American culture and society.

And so, we do our best to provide information to help raise awareness about these gaps in representation, and also make the books findable, right? And so, with the search function, you can search for books featuring any of the races or cultures that we emphasize, as well as the hundreds of ethnicities that one might be interested in finding a book about, as well as our categories. If Beautiful Life is a category that you're interested in, you can search using that category.

Part of what we do in sharing our data is we hope that it can illuminate other stories that can be told... While it's important for children to learn about these historical oppressions, and it's important for children to think about what's eaten in a culture that may differ from their own, it runs the risk of miscommunicating to children that, for instance, oppression is over and done.

Krista Aronson, Director, DBF

Anne Sibley O'Brien: I think the other crucial piece to add is that, as a result, because of what we do, our collection includes everything, the good, the bad, and the ugly. We do flag books when we can find reviews, critical reviews from the group represented, that identifies what's problematic. But you will need to do your due diligence as you search through the titles and the collection because we have everything we can find.

Tikki Tikki Tembo

EmbraceRace: You have great instructions on your website about how to use DBF. Someone in the chat is asking, when you say "good, bad and ugly," does that include racist portrayals? And it does, right?

Krista Aronson: Yes.

EmbraceRace: It does. But they're pretty clearly marked as flagged as this book has been flagged as problematic, and then with the link you can go to reviews of the book?

Krista Aronson: Yeah. If a book is flagged, you'll see right above the title either a red or yellow flag with a link to the cultural review. But you can also by looking in the Bates Library Catalog link, you can see professional reviews of books from the Kirkus Review, or SLJ, or whomever else may have reviewed that book.

EmbraceRace: And to be clear, these 3,000 books are not a sample of books, this is a universe of books, published since 2002 featuring BIPOC human characters. It's all in there because literally you have the entire universe of those books in your catalog.

Anne Sibley O'Brien: Everything we've been able to find. We're always locating new ones.

EmbraceRace: That's amazing. And someone's also asking about, you mentioned interlibrary loan, they're available. Is that working right now during COVID?

Krista Aronson: No, unfortunately.

EmbraceRace: Sure. I wonder if you can say more about diversity. Two things, first, again, by way of making sure we're on the same page, again, you're focused on BIPOC books, Black Indigenous People and People of Color Books.

And of course, there are lots of ways in which people can and do talk about diverse books, right? But that's your focus, not these other ways?

Anne Sibley O'Brien: Yes.

EmbraceRace: And then I wanted you to just say something about what you mean by diversity, and again, why it's important? Diversity of course is a term we hear in many, many, contexts, and many, many, people sort of assume, "Well, of course it's a good thing. Of course you want diversity" without necessarily being as thoughtful as we might be. Why do we want diversity? Why diversity? What do you mean by diversity, but especially why is it so important?

Krista Aronson: Do you want to get started on this one, Annie?


Large categories used at DBF

Anne Sibley O'Brien: Okay. It all matters. All forms of diversity. Class, gender, religion, language, sexual orientation, ability ... On and on. But my particular background is focused on race and culture, as is the Diverse BookFinder. We have narrowed in. One of the reasons we chose after quite a long process of thinking about names that title is that we want to keep open the possibility that eventually we might look at other types of diversity, but for now, we're about race and culture.

It all matters. All forms of diversity. Class, gender, religion, language, sexual orientation, ability ... On and on. But my particular background is focused on race and culture, as is the Diverse BookFinder. We have narrowed in. One of the reasons we chose after quite a long process of thinking about names that title is that we want to keep open the possibility that eventually we might look at other types of diversity, but for now, we're about race and culture.

Anne Sibley O'Brien

Anne Sibley O'Brien: My favorite quote about this is from the poet and writer, Lucille Clifton, and I heard her speak at a conference where she said, "The literature of America should reflect the children of America." To me, one of the things that's so essential about positive portrayals of racial and cultural difference, is that it acts as an antidote to the majority culture that erases, or demeans, or in some way holds us less than people who aren't white.

It's so essential for children to see that, again, using Rudine Sims Bishops model, the mirrors. So picture books where they can see themselves. And then I also think that one thing that's really essential, the window aspect for all children to get to know other children with different experiences. But in particular for majority children, for white children, who are centered in our culture, and picture books featuring BIPOC characters can provide such an important counter to that where whiteness is decentered.

To me, one of the things that's so essential about positive portrayals of racial and cultural difference, is that it acts as an antidote to the majority culture that erases, or demeans, or in some way holds us less than people who aren't white.

Anne Sibley O'Brien, Cofounder, DFB

EmbraceRace: Thank you so much for that, Anne. What can you search for and what you can't? What about race of author?

Krista Aronson: We focus on character, not story, just so that everybody knows. And so, when we're saying who is in a book, we're kind of focused on the aspects of a character's identity that we can either tell from the story or that can be determined by cross referencing information online. And so, we don't just tag books based on our impression of it, but we use corroborating evidence. You can search for all the things that I showed you, in addition, you can search for religion, immigration, status, gender identity, and setting of the book.

We focus on character, not story, just so that everybody knows. And so, when we're saying who is in a book, we're kind of focused on the aspects of a character's identity that we can either tell from the story or that can be determined by cross referencing information online.

Krista Aronson

EmbraceRace: That's interesting. Yeah, it's hard to just by a book jacket photo.

Krista Aronson: Well, especially with the thousands of books that we have and the thousands of authors and illustrators.

Anne Sibley O'Brien: And most picture books don't have a picture of the author on the jacket also.

EmbraceRace: It's true. Yeah.

Anne Sibley O'Brien: But the one thing that we do is in our blog posts where we have lists, recommended lists, because we know again and again, we find that that's what people are really looking for. So we do blog posts about particular groups, or particular times of year, or various other topics. And with those, we definitely prioritize Own Voices books where we are able to identify them. If you look through our News & Views and our posts, you will be able to find recommended books that are by members of the group.

Krista Aronson: Own Voices and, ways of thinking about who is the author, is something that we've explored a couple of times. We've taken a run at it in terms of adding it as a tag to our books. It's something that, in order to accomplish as rigorously as we do our other tags, extends beyond our current resources. And so, if we don't want to identify a person visually in terms of their racial, cultural, or religious background or gender identity, we need to hear more from the individual, the author or the illustrator, about that identity before we can tag it in that way. And so, we need to develop a systematic way of doing that before we move forward. It's certainly something that's on our wish list, something that we want to do. It's just not something that we've had the resources to do at this particular point in time.

EmbraceRace: Got it. Another question we're getting, can you search for age of reader?

Krista Aronson: In terms of age, that's something that I'm working on incorporating. I know that's so important to our educators to know how would we rate this book in terms of reading level, and what grade would be the most appropriate for it. And that's something that we're working on. Hope to see that coming at some point in the not too distant future, but not soon either. I think, certainly, our current situation has thrown timelines off for everything, and so that's included as well.

EmbraceRace: And I wanted to just add, someone in the chat, when we were asking about ages, pointed out that if you go to the Bates entry, which you have to get a library card entry, to get to the reviews that are attached to the books in this database. The Kirkus Review or all those reviews will tell you what age they recommend.

Anne Sibley O'Brien: Yeah.

"Fall in line, Holden"

EmbraceRace: Anne, your last point opens the door to saying a little bit more about how do you, right in your own work. Anne, I know that you're a grandmother, I think you said when we were talking before. And Krista, you're a mom of a young child. You have kids. One young kid, right?

Krista Aronson: I have one little and one big one.

EmbraceRace: One little, one big. How do you when you're putting together, Anne, those lists that you talked about, those recommended lists. You mentioned Own Voices will be prominently represented there. One person, Tom, sent a note saying, "3,000's a lot of books."

Anne Sibley O'Brien: It is a lot of books.

EmbraceRace: Of course, yes, looking at some of the lists you recommend might be a good place to start. But for parents who want to put together their own lists and aren't really sure how to do it beyond the, let's get some peeps, some kids of color in there, let's get some non-stereotypical portrayals if we can identify those. What are the other sorts of things that you look at in identifying great books for your own loved littles?

Krista Aronson: I can't help but be a psychologist when you ask that question, and really think about meeting children where they are in terms of their own growth and development around the topics of race, and culture, and religion. We know that children ages 3 to 7, 8, hold biased attitudes across the board, whether it comes to skin tone, body type, hair texture, ability, gender. They hold very biased attitudes. For me, it's about picking books that will really challenge some of those biases in ways that are topics of interest for my kiddo.

If my child is very interested in princesses, I'm really looking for books that push that boundary on what they may be developing in terms of their idea of who's eligible and who's not eligible to be a princess. I'm looking for books that push their ideas about gender, about masculinity, I think in particular is one that kids have very entrenched views about when masculinity rules are violated, so to speak. And so, I like to meet kids where they are. I like to push them. I like to acknowledge, I acknowledge their biases and know that I can affect them with picture books.

Cross Group books are another great way to do that. Cross Group books are books that feature characters interacting across a racial or cultural difference. My research, as well as researchers from England and Italy, have demonstrated that cross group books where friendship is central to the story, where the interactions are positive and direct. The interactions are not a PenPal, but they meet face-to-face, can have a really positive effect shaping attitudes about whatever group or whatever groups are present in the story. Those are some of the ways that I pick books to read to my little, and to pass on to other people.

EmbraceRace: Anne, anything you want to add to that?

Anne Sibley O'Brien: Yeah. Taman is six, he also has a baby sister who's 6 months, and I'll be redoing the whole process with her. Right now what I look for her, board books with multiracial baby faces because there's real science to show how significant that is. Krista, just want to say ditto on the interest and developmental levels, and sort of using that as the portal for which I examine books. A big thing for me is book appeal, like a book that I just can't wait to share with him. And then a really important piece, continuing what Krista was saying, is countering anti blackness which is a universal in our culture and in the world. Taman is Korean and white, and he has a lot of proximity to whiteness, so I've already seen how he's absorbed anti blackness. That's one thing that I look for a lot, is positive portrayals of black characters. Strengthening and exploring his Korean heritage. Look, I made a list with some names, No Kimchi For Me by Aram Kim, or Where's Halmoni? by Julie Kim. Those two books have been very important in our family.

An example of a positive portrayal of a black character that he really enjoys and can identify with the character is Max Found Two Sticks by Brian Pinkney. Taking about human difference like the Barefoot Book of Children talking about skin color and talking about racial features. And then one thing that Taman in terms of interests is he really likes books with action, or he has, so Lucia The Luchadora by Cynthia Leonor Garza was quite popular. But now all of a sudden, he's only nonfiction. So he says, "I hate fiction!" This happened in the last week or two. Now I have a new challenge and I just sent him Whoosh, which is the story by Chris Barton illustrated by Don Tate. Which is the story of an African American scientist who invented the Super Soaker. I hope that fit the bill.

EmbraceRace: You did, yeah. Thank you. I wonder, just following up on what you said about board books, do you guys categorized board books as well or no?

Krista Aronson: No. We are picture books, K through 3 audience as the target. But what Annie was saying about board books is that with infants from psychological research, we know that actual facial pictures are very important in helping infants, especially if they're in a homogeneous racial environment to be exposed to and look at the central features. Nose, eyes, mouth of a diverse array of faces can really help them in their ability to process faces throughout their lives. It's fascinating, but board books with real pictures are important for babies.

EmbraceRace: Do you know of a good tool for teachers to use in evaluating the books that they receive? I also, by the way, think of the same thing with respect to public libraries. We actually had a sort of an adventure with a public library. I suppose it's not shocking, but it is a little bit. Each librarian offered his, her, typically her own very subjective criteria of what's popular, what they thought would have real demand. But also just what she thought was a good book, what was not a good book. There was nothing that they were referring to that would even sort of standardize their choices. Do you know of a good tool, especially for those young kids in inquisition?

Krista Aronson: Yeah. We at the Diverse BookFinder have developed a collection analysis tool. Public libraries and school libraries for free can upload an Excel file of their collection with ISBNs. It's really all we need is ISBNs, and we will cross reference it automatically with the Diverse BookFinder collection. We can give libraries a report about what they have in terms of who and how those groups are represented. To provide some data, to think about gaps that may be present in representation. And so, that is a tool, you can see it right on our website. In the top you'll see new Collection Analysis Tool and I invite everyone to, all school librarians, public librarians, to take a look and utilize it. Does that answer your question?

EmbraceRace: Yeah. That's great. There's a question here that came in about diverse books. "I've always thought of diverse books in two different categories. One, stories that could be about anyone but feature a minority character, or two, books where the characters and stories represent a minority voice." Or minoritized voice. I changed that. Can you talk about the difference? How do you suggest using those different kinds of books and which should we focused on in our classrooms? I know you guys have categories that differentiate, which I love, between these two kinds of books.

Anne Sibley O'Brien: Well, one way we've talked about it is "the work of children," so children's lives, children's everyday concerns. We call those Any Child books when the star of the book is a child of color. And then Beautiful Life would be the books that have particular cultural content. Now, any child books can have cultural content, an example, a book like The Snowy Day would be in Any Child book because it's on the one hand, a particular story of a particular neighborhood, a particular family, a black urban experience. But the narrative of the story is not driven by those cultural details. It's driven by this very common experience of going out in the snow. Whereas Beautiful Life would be a storyline that was driven by cultural details.

EmbraceRace: I love that there's that distinction. Our experiences are all racialized. So to be able to just change the color of the character's skin and have it be the same story, it's a very different kind of story.

Krista Aronson: No, I think that sometimes, as parents as educators, we're looking for a variety of stories. And so, Any Child category is one of the most populated, there are a lot of Any Child books out there and they-

Anne Sibley O'Brien: And they're increasing.

Krista Aronson: - are growing in number each year. And they certainly have their place. And I think particularly when our children are younger, we're drawn to those books maybe more so than as they age. Yeah, I think they reflect an important part of any collection. We're always just arguing for balance, that there also be other representations as well.

EmbraceRace: We have a number of questions that really center on how you engage with books that are problematic. We know that among quite thoughtful people, there's some difference of opinion, especially with books aimed at very young children. Some would say, "No, you avoid those books." Tintin in the Congo, you avoid those books. Some would say, "No, there's no book that you can't engage, you just need to be careful in how you do it."

Do you have any general wisdom around, as one person put it, quick censoring and editing, if you're dealing with a book or engaging a child in a book that is, or considering, where the language, content, imagery, et cetera isn't all you would hope it to be racially speaking?

Krista Aronson: We do have books in the collection that express values and ideas that are not consistent with my personal values, or what I would think would be the values of most individuals in our society. I encounter them as parents sometimes, when I'm coding a book and I turn the page and there's a page portraying some sort of stereotype.

What do I do with that, I guess, is the question? I think that for me, there are times when I close the book, if I don't see things getting better, and I say, "You know, honey, this book, I thought I really liked it. But the more I read, I realize it's not in line with our values. And I don't like, for instance, the way that this image is painted, or I'm really uncomfortable with some of the language that's being used, so we're going to put it away.

And then there are other moments where you might kind of think about that and say, "We're going to keep reading the book, but I'm really uncomfortable with this and I'm going to talk a little bit about why, and what makes me uncomfortable about it." That's how I approach it as a parent. In the collection for the Diverse BookFinder, one of the criteria of our funding is that we do not censor through the Institute of Museum and Library Services. And so, we have all of the books represented and do our best to provide critical information to inform users about when there's a book that was just not recommended, or when there's a book that is recommended to use with caution.

EmbraceRace: There really is, I mean, folks who are looking for positive representations, BIPOC characters, it takes work to find them, right? I mean, and that shouldn't be surprising because there's a problem in the book industry, namely, white characters are way overrepresented and kids are exposed to that everyday - in libraries, schools, stores that sell books.

And as you said, just because a book stars a person of color doesn't mean it's a great portrayal of that person. It's really hard to find them. And then on top of that we have COVID. Right? You're looking at the reviews and you're using resources to find diverse books. But you can't go to the library nor does it make sense or is it possible to buy them all. What do you do? Do you guys have tips in this time for finding picture books electronically?

Anne Sibley O'Brien: So we just did two blog posts about eBooks. The second one, thanks to our conversation. Basically you have three really strong options that I would recommend tonight. There are others. But the first one is, if you have a library card to your local library, many libraries are members of the Cloud Library. And that gives you access to a lot of eBooks. Unfortunately, once you get into the Cloud Library, then you have to do this exhaustive search to try to find the books that you're looking for. So we have been featuring the eBooks that we found available through Cloud Library on Instagram.

The other two are subscription services but they both have a 30 days free trial right now. And the first one is Epic!, which you may already have access to through your school. Many schools use it. My grandson, it's what they have. You know the school sent home a tablet and he has access to Epic! through it. But teachers can get a free membership right now, even without the school participating and parents can sign up for a 30-day trial. And the other one is Skybrary, which is a project of Reading is Fundamental.

Epic! is also really hard. I spent about two hours and came up with about 50 of strong BIPOC titles, and those are listed in the blog post. And then Skybrary appears to have, I looked at kindergarten picture books, and they appear to have a little more than 20% of them are racially and culturally diverse books. So that would just be a matter of going through, for kindergarten 2,400 books, and on every page, you would find a couple and then you can read those online. Does that answer the question you're asking?

EmbraceRace: Yeah, thank you for doing that work. You know, since we talked, and I was having this frustration, not finding stuff available electronically and free. My child now does have Epic! through her teacher because her teacher got a free subscription and then she can share it with the whole class.

Anne Sibley O'Brien: Well, I list the 50 titles in Epic! on the blog post. Also I can say that we are in conversation with them to talk about findability. We just found out today that they're interested in that conversation.

EmbraceRace: Oh, fantastic. Thank you for that. We have some questions about the trends, right, that you're seeing. I'm forgetting which organization does it, but it does read those great graphics from diversity in children's books.

Diversity in Children’s Books 2018.

Huyck, David and Sarah Park Dahlen. (2019 June 19). Diversity in Children’s Books 2018. blog. Created in consultation with Edith Campbell, Molly Beth Griffin, K. T. Horning, Debbie Reese, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, and Madeline Tyner, with statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison: Retrieved from

Anne Sibley O'Brien: Oh, you mean the graphic by Sarah Park Dahlen. [Full citation above. Mirror metaphor comes from the work of children's literature scholar Rudine Sims Bishop]

EmbraceRace: Right. But from that, I mean, probably a lot of us who track any of the trends certainly around race ethnicity, know it really from that graphic, which comes out probably every couple years or so. But you have done a closer look at the particular universe you're looking at, and I'm wondering, since 2002, those are 18 years, a fair chunk of time. So what are some of the outstanding trends you're seeing in representation?

Krista Aronson: No, that's a great question. I think that first of all, the data that we gather show that the number of books is remaining stable. We're not seeing substantial growth in terms of what's being published when you think about BIPOC books. When we think about representation, not only kind of the who, but the how, one of the most fascinating trends is something that we've been puzzling about, and that we may write about, once we catch our breath, right? Is this increase in Any Child books. But not just the increase in Any Child books, but Any Child books that have a character of color, who we would call brown skinned or race unclear, right?

And so a character who is typically lighter skinned and depicted as an Any Child. And we see that trend increasing and so kind of thinking about, well, what does that mean? What are the benefits and strengths of that? Well, then a book like that allows a lot of children of color to read themselves into that role, or for a parent to read themselves into that character, so that's an advantage. The disadvantage is in saying, who can be Any Child, right? Is it just lighter skinned, BIPOC people who can be seen as entering into that kind of mainstream space and engaging in those activities. So that's one of the trends that we've been really kind of puzzling on and watching as it grows.

Anne Sibley O'Brien: Many of those books are written, and/or illustrated by white authors and illustrators. So it seems to be one of publishing's responses to the DiverseBook Challenge is, "Oh, well, then we'll just have the authors and illustrators we have make sure that a lot of the characters have brown skin." Which is not what we're looking for. Certainly does not meet the needs that have been identified by the Diverse Books movement.

EmbraceRace: Do you see yourself having an advocacy role? And are you mostly about showing what's up there? Are you also about saying, "Look, we need more of what's good?"

Krista Aronson: Yeah, no, that's a great question. And it's absolutely. We are advocates within this space. I hope that we bring the data that can support arguments for what we need, and how this work should develop. I think in terms of advocacy that we engage in every day, it's more about accessibility and findability. So we've created our own tagging structure, our own metadata, our own algorithms for kind of thinking about, "Well, how do I find a book?" And it's really groundbreaking, because when we think about traditional structures like Library of Congress search engines or subject headings, they tend to focus on what's happening in the book and not who is in the book.

And so using those traditional search structures which are intended to be colorblind, it makes it very difficult, if not near impossible to surface books with BIPOC character, so my favorite example is a Sandwich Swap. It's a book about an Arab American girl and a white American girl. They're best friends and they get into a kerfuffle over sandwiches. One says she's so sorry that her friend has to eat chickpeas every day. And hummus, it smells disgusting. The other says, "Well, I always thought mashed peanuts was a gross idea," and it devolves into the whole school getting into a food fight essentially, that gets resolved in the end. The Library of Congress subject headings are sandwiches and toleration.

We are advocates within this space. I hope that we bring the data that can support arguments for what we need, and how this work should develop. I think in terms of advocacy that we engage in every day, it's more about accessibility and findability... And it's really groundbreaking, because when we think about traditional structures like Library of Congress search engines or subject headings, they tend to focus on what's happening in the book and not who is in the book.

Krista Aronson, Director, DBF

Anne Sibley O'Brien: Whatever that is.

Krista Aronson: Whatever that is, and I can't remember the third. But in there is not a clear understand. So if I'm an educator and I'm looking for a book that might help inform conversations that I'm having in my class, this book is going to be difficult for me to find unless I type in "sandwiches." But you can find it on the Diverse BookFinder, if you were interested in finding books that depicted cross group relationships between Arab and white girls. You can do that. You can select all those facets and see what comes up. So our advocacy right now is in, as Annie mentioned, part of that kind of a conversation with publishers and book distributors and eBooks, to think about, how can you make these books findable?

What are the languages that you can use that fit the needs of those who are looking for those books? If anyone had told me how long we would spend finding these books when I got started, I would not believed them. It's a huge undertaking, and that's one area where I think we can, even with what we have right now, certainly grow in terms of search structures.

EmbraceRace: Yeah, now that is a huge problem. We're so appreciative that you're taking it on. You guys came up with a sort of Action Guide tip sheet for how to think about choosing books that I'm going to share with everyone. Just published! It will be very helpful. And there's so many resources on their site. And we've also included some resources of other places to go. A lot of people want lists. You do that with Diverse BookFinder, but what I'm also hearing, and our friend Megan Dowd Lambert likes to say as well, when we say, "We need a list," is, "No, you need a librarian."

Krista Aronson: Yes, yes. There is no list that works for every family, every school, classroom, every child.

EmbraceRace: You know, all of that. And I think that's lovely. And librarians love it too. Librarians sort of want it to be utilized in that way. So I think librarians out there, am I right?

Krista Aronson: Yes. I love to help families find books.

EmbraceRace: Just picking up on a thing both of you said early on, obviously, there are ways that you could expand the range of books that you're looking at. That obviously takes a lot of resources, as you just said. A lot of resources went into doing cataloging what you've done. And then Krista, you just said, the issue of course of how to find the books that are there, that's a real challenge. Earlier on in the chat, there were a number of questions about, and you may have seen some of them, about particular books that looks like some folks went to the site, tried to find some things, I know Lucille Clifton came up.

Of course, people need to really understand what your criteria were for inclusion very carefully that would obviously explain why some things may not have been included. The 3,000 books are the ones that you could find. I wonder, do you have even a sense of why you may not have been able to find, right, some of the books that you know are out there? And even a sense of, do you think it's 90% of the books, 70% of the books, half the books that fit your criteria?

Anne Sibley O'Brien: It's more than half definitely. Because when we look like at the CCBC lists, which at one point we were they were sharing with us, and we found many books that weren't on their lists. What do you think Krista maybe 85, 90%?

Krista Aronson: Yeah. I mean, we're certainly the most representative of anywhere else. And I would feel confident in saying 90%. Noting that there are some older books that are on our wish list that may be out of print, or we can't get our hands on. And so there are those books. Our inclusion criteria are on the Diverse BookFinder webpage, and we always welcome communication from people. You can find our contact information on the contact us page. But yeah, I mean, I would feel confident in saying 90% if not more.

EmbraceRace: That's amazing.

Anne Sibley O'Brien: And another reason, if the books are very recent, we have a lag of what do you think about a year?

Krista Aronson: I would say six to nine months it's going to get bigger because our current situation. But we get about 60% of our books through book donations, and so staying in touch with publishers and reaching out quarterly to request donations. Then they go through the process of coding on our end. And within our lab, they're viewed by no fewer than two sets of eyes in order to maintain the data integrity. And then once we're done with them, they go on to the base library where they're part of the normal cataloging procedure there. And so that's another set of hands and eyes.

And so between the requesting and getting books and getting them in the system, and then getting through the library, it takes several months in order to make that happen. So newer books are coming.

EmbraceRace: Yeah. You're trying to look at where the industry is going and to shape it. You probably chose 2002 and you're not taking books before that?

Krista Aronson: Yeah, 2002 is really where we found that accessibility dropped off. Publishers no longer have back copies of those books. You can't really get them through any other means. And so that's why 2002 was chosen.

EmbraceRace: Thank you so much. We could do this all night. Very generous labor of love. Yeah, I know, thank you for sharing this. You really brought to mind lots of questions. I mean thinking just even your categories, they're really so rich. Thinking about sort of Any Child and the more culturally specific and when either one is sort of best use.

And I think I wouldn't mind Any Child book so much if there were just more books that sort of told more culturally specific stories that were not about oppression or food. But thank you so much. And we really appreciate both of you. Thank you for creating this tool.

EmbraceRace: Go check out the site people, go check out the site, check out the tool, much more to come.

Krista Aronson: Sign up for our newsletter if you want to stay in touch with what we're doing, and what we're thinking about right now and social media as well.

EmbraceRace: Thank you.

Krista Aronson: Thank you and thank you everyone for your wonderful questions. I've enjoyed speaking with you all.

Anne Sibley O'Brien: It's been an honor.

Bonus Q & A!

Anne Sibley O'Brien of Diverse BookFinder offered to answer more of your questions via email. Those answers follow.

  • As a white woman, how do I know what to look for to ensure I am providing authentic and accurate portrayals of BIPOC characters in the picture books I select for my library and to share with children? Also a white woman, I assume my blind spots, so I always look to BIPOC experts, especially members of the group portrayed, for reviews, guidelines, info on common stereotypes to watch for, etc. If you scroll through our blog archive (News & Views in the menu bar), you'll find posts by expert readers, such as those evaluating Brazilian books, and recommending Native books (here and here). The books we highlight in blog post lists are heavily #OwnVoices and usually titles that have been recommended as authentic. I also look for blurbs by authors and scholars from the same group. School Library Journal and Kirkus often pair a book with a reviewer from the same ethnic/racial background, so those perspectives are helpful. Also check websites like the ones recommended by EmbraceRace, which often feature book titles.
  • You mentioned that it was hard to find books about interracial friendships among children. What books would you recommend that show interracial friendships between kids? If you go to our Search page and click on Cross-Group books, you'll find 479 titles (as of today), but those include all kinds of cross-racial interactions. This blog post describes how to narrow the search to titles about cross-race friendships. Our article for SLJ includes a few titles and describes the research about why these books are so important.
  • Do you think that growing number of “any child’ books is an indication of “tolerance of diversity “ or is it a watering down the the message of diversity? It can be both at the same time. As with all categories of books, our message is BALANCE. Any category can become problematic if it's the only representation that children see.
  • I follow Rachel Cargle on ig, who has been doing a great story time during the pandemic, but I'm wondering what other authors/activists/etc. are out there with awesome children's books recommendations. I recommend the work of Cynthia Leitich Smith. Her resources page offers links to a wealth of articles and lists of recommended books.
  • If you are searching for books that highlight BIPOC stories within a subject field (such as doing a unit on global warming, or engineering, etc) what is the best way to search for that? I would try various related search terms; for instance, "environment" surfaces 18 picture books.
  • I'm wondering if there is a way to find the books that you've flagged as problematic. I am actively seeking out diverse books to buy for our collection but I'd also like to see a list of books to consider weeding from the library as I look at them with a more critical eye. I could look up each book separately but it's a number of steps for each book. It would be helpful to have a list of these books in addition to our usual processes. There is currently no way to search for flagged books, but we're looking into whether or not we can find a way to get a list.
  • As a preschool director ordering books, can you direct me to a way to use your list well, to really offer windows and mirrors to all of our kids. I would suggest scrolling through our blogposts (click on each month in the archive and 1-3 posts will appear) to find topics or booklists that might meet your needs. That will pop up a manageable list of books to start. I would also browse by the categories of Any Child and Race/Culture Concepts, both of which include a large number of young picture books. And try searching terms like "preschool" (9 books) or "families" (672 books) or other subjects that are typically covered in picture books for very young children.
  • I love that libraries can get a report/assessment. Is there an interest in making these reports publicly available? Like a diversity report from a company is publicly available. As part of our data policy, we hold individual submissions confidential. But, as we move forward with this work we do plan to share out information nationally, or by region.
  • Can you look up books in other languages? I teach in a school with lots of children from multi language families. Our Content code for Bi/Multilingual books currently includes 701 titles. These include books with vocabulary from another language as well as bilingual titles.
  • Is there a way to use Diverse Bookfinder to find books featuring individuals who are blind, use Braille or ASL, have hair loss due to cancer, are adopted, have vitiligo, are missing limbs, use a wheelchair for mobility, Down Syndrome, etc. Click on our Content codes (scroll down in the grey box on the left on our Search page) for Disability (136 titles) and Diverse Family (281 books), which includes adoptive families. Also you can use search terms such as "adoption" (31 books) or "wheelchair" (4 books).

Krista Aronson

Krista Aronson is a CoFounder of Diverse BookFinder. She is also a Professor of Psychology at Bates College. Her work focuses on illuminating how people come to understand complex social constructs like race and ethnicity, including how children… More about Krista >
Krista Aronson

Anne Sibley O'Brien

Anne Sibley O'Brien is a CoFounder of Diverse BookFinder. She is also an award-winning author and illustrator of 38 multicultural children’s books whose work has regularly been cited for attention to authentic cultural details. Her lifelong focus on… More about Anne Sibley >
Anne Sibley O'Brien