Recently, I read an article that Ezra Jack Keats’ book, The Snowy Day, is the book that has been checked out more times - 485, 583 - than any other book in the New York Public Library system. I can understand why this book is so popular. I remember reading this book with my preschoolers every year. At the time, most of my students had never experienced snow - and neither had I - so the whole story and the pictures evoked a sense of wonder. I think we all wished we could go outside and play in snow like Peter did.
This article made me reflect back to when I was getting my Master of Education in Curriculum & Instruction with a focus on Children’s Literature. At that time - back in 1976 - one of my assignments for my university coursework was to make a list of multicultural picture books. I remember going to the library, looking through the card catalog, and going through the shelves to look for picture books from different cultures. I wrote the title, author, and a synopsis of the book on 4”x6” index cards that I could reference when we studied different cultures in our Head Start classroom.
What I recall about that project is that the Peter books by Ezra Jack Keats were probably the only ones at the time that pictured children of color in realistic stories. The Snowy Day, Peter’s Chair, Whistle for Willie, A Letter to Amy were sweet stories about a little boy and his adventures with his family, friends, and his dog. My students loved these books! They also loved Goggles, a story about how Peter and Archie along with Peter’s dog Willie get away from some neighborhood bullies. We had little boys in our class who looked like Peter, so these stories were especially important.
I compiled a pretty comprehensive list of multicultural picture books, but as I recall, they were primarily folk tales from different countries or they were books about children in other countries. It was good literature and I did try to expose our preschoolers to stories from other cultures, but I realize that there was definitely a lack of diversity in realistic children’s literature at that time.
Today, there are many more choices for teachers and students. One of my favorites when I taught second graders was Dumpling Soup by my high school classmate, Jama Kim Rattigan. It is a a story that our local kids can relate to and shares about our culture here in Hawaii. Teachers can also search for multicultural book lists like these: 30 Children’s Books about Diversity that Celebrate Our Differences by Danika Ellis or Popular Multicultural Picture Books Shelf. I love this quote from Danika Ellis: “This is the importance of mirrors and windows: mirrors to see ourselves reflected in the world, so we don’t feel alone, and windows to see outside of our own lives, to recognize the humanity of other people.”
Picture books are a great way for children to learn about the diversity in our world and to develop empathy for other children and their lives. Let’s make sure we provide both mirrors and windows in the books we read to them.