Papa don't preach, just read
13 children’s books on diversity to expand your little one’s mind and heart
Last month, a LinkedIn post caught our attention. New father Sarit Ray, dad to a six-month-old girl shared how his go-to Alexa command is “Play songs by Countdown Kids” and that he often hums Old MacDonald even when his daughter is asleep, or when he’s brewing himself a cup of coffee.
You’re wondering what this parenting post is doing on LinkedIn, right? Well, he clarified. “Rhymes are among the first things children hear. And they have entrenched gender stereotypes. In an age where we’re trying to bring up strong women to be the leaders of tomorrow, this needs to be talked about. Baa Baa Black Sheep has wool for “the little boy”; When five little monkeys fall off the bed, all the monkeys are “he”, and “mommy calls the doctor”. You’ve got to wonder: where are the girls/women in nursery rhymes, outside of the mother as caregiver?” he asks.
Ray, like many others in the comment section of the post, has been swapping out “he” for “she” when he sings to his daughter, and Baa Baa Black Sheep has a bag for “the little girl who lives down the lane”.
This surprising paucity of modern stories for children was further validated by Sanya Podar, founder of Daffodil Lane Books, who’s been working with writers and illustrators to create content that’s inclusive, correcting the mistakes of the past.
She says, “It could be something as simple as a character in a wheelchair or with brown skin or no hair. Between the ages of four to seven, kids are the most receptive, and when they see different kinds of representation in their books, it normalises the distinct features. You don’t have to scream out loud or preach, but the subtle nods and references are all that matters.”
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We consulted with new parents, Podar and Juggernaut founder Chiki Sarkar to update the little library for your little ones. Turns out, there are plenty of enlightening yet fun books for your kids to navigate challenges of life, from grief and anxiety to diversity and more., suitable for every age group.
Happy reading hour to you and your little bookworm.
13 books on diversity and inclusion for kids
Families, Families, Families! by Susanne and Max Lang (Age 0-3)
Goofy family portraits from the animal kingdom bring alive the various kinds of family: traditional as well as non-traditional.
The photo album features sheep, pandas, chickens, turtles and other wildlings illustrating different kinds of family trees. Some live with step-siblings, others are raised by grandparents. Some have two mothers, others have only one parent. Some live with many pets, others grow plants.
“The message is universal. No matter what kind of family the animals belong to, “If you love each other, then you are a family.” It’s an excellent way to introduce children to all kinds of families – divorced, single parent, step-parents, adopted, and so on,” says Podar.
Diversity isn’t confined to the family set-up, but even in the colours, species and size of the animals chosen. The picture book teaches your toddlers that families come in all shapes, textures and sizes, without preaching.
Everywhere Babies by Susan Meyers (Age 0-3)
Illustrator Marla Frazee’s adorable sketches are a compilation of cute babies doing cute things, like yawning or even just burping. The best part: it’s more diverse than you could imagine. Diverse in actions, settings, body type and family structure.
Meyers drives home the message that there are millions of babies born every day across the world, and all of them are loved regardless of how curly their hair is or how plump they are. It illustrates that it’s okay for babies to cry or even feel sad, sleepy or hungry. Bottomline: no two babies are the same, and no matter what kind of baby you are, you’re always loved.
Snuggle up with your little one and introduce them to other newborn friends in this adorable board book.
My Indian Baby Books by Kavita Arvind (Ages 0-3)
When Juggernaut founder Chiki Sarkar realised that she was only reading international authors to her young ones, she felt the dearth of Indian content and imagery as far as board books for kids go. Her solution: Take classic nursery rhymes and illustrate them with Indian scenes and images. Row Row Your Boat is set in the floating market of Srinagar, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star is about a girl celebrating Eid, Johnny Johnny is about a naughty little boy in Kerala tricking his lungi-wearing dad.
“We wanted to show images that felt really Indian, yet not ‘ethnic’. Just cute and fun. Illustrator Kavita Arvind made the stories come alive. From Kashmir to Kerala, with Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus and Christians – it’s just visually intelligent,” she says.
The World Needs Who You Were made To Be by Joanna Gaines (Age 4-6)
In a society where we are constantly struggling to conform to “acceptable behaviour” at school, workplace, neighbourhood, Gaines’s book is a fire balloon of fresh air.
A team of babies come together to build a bunch of hot-air balloons — they all have their own strengths and weaknesses, and work differently. This is also an introduction to what a workplace looks like.
The baby brigade is a delightful mix of skin colour, hair texture, including a baby in a wheelchair who ensures there’s a special assistance ramp entry to her hot air balloon. The left brain and the right brain meet whimsically in this eye-catching book that screams inclusion.
Once Upon A World: Rapunzel by Chloe Perkins and Archana Sreenivasan (Age 4-6)
For a while now, Perkins’s Once Upon A World series has been upgrading and retelling fairy tales for a younger audience in more diverse and non-European settings. After reimagining Cinderella and Snow White, she has turned to Rapunzel in an Indian setting.
Using warm and vibrant illustrations, the authors bring forests, villages and the characters to life. Sure, the prince is still saving Rapunzel in distress, but unlike the original tale, the prince doesn’t turn up out of nowhere. The authors show the young prince looking for love and eventually falling for Rapunzel.
It’s also a welcome change to finally see these fairy tale characters without blonde hair and blue eyes. It’s also age-appropriate in the sense that the prince isn’t flung from the tower and thorns don’t blind him. It’s a sanitised, same old, yet so different version, and a worthy addition to your little one’s growing library.
The Colors of Us by Karen Katz (Age 4-6)
While your toddlers grow in the sheltered canopy of love and care, their perception of the world may not widen as much as it does when school begins, and they start noticing differences.
Karen Katz book is a perfect read for these wonder years when your kid is processing diversity in various forms. The 32-pager picture book tells the story of how seven-year-old Lena wants to draw a self-portrait, and decides to use brown crayon to colour her skin.
But when she goes for a walk with her mother, she realises there is more than one shade of brown for skin. As Lena notices that everyone has a different skin colour, she begins to relate them to her favourite food item like cinnamon rolls, French toast, peanut butter, chocolate brown cupcakes, pizza crust, ginger and so on.
The vibrant illustrations also showcase the loving bond between mothers and their kids. Kats dedicates this warm, little picture book to her daughter, Lena, who was adopted from Guatemala.
It’s Okay To Be Different by Todd Parr (Age 4-6)
Parr’s book is a lovely springboard exercise in finding all the ways in which you can be different and how it’s okay to be distinctive in your own way.
Each new section in the book starts with the three words, “It’s okay to…” and goes on to address serious issues as well as funnier ones. For instance, “It’s okay to talk about your feelings” is followed by “It’s okay to eat macaroni in the bathroom”. The book discusses a wide spectrum of issues from adoption, colour and size to weird eating habits, shape of your nose and dance moves.
It’s a fun read for both parents and children to discover in the ways they stand out in a crowd without feeling alienated.
Who Wants Green Fingers Anyway by Geeta Dharmarajan (Ages 7-10)
The grouchy amma in the story loves her plants. She takes much pride in her gardening skills. But when her husband claims that he is a better gardener, it leads to WWIII in the household. Mud flies, pots are destroyed and appaa creates complete unrest with his failed attempts.
Julian Is A Mermaid by Jessica Love (Ages 7-10)
This will give wings, errr… scales to your kid to dream, and dream big.
In Love’s book about individual expression, young boy Julian is strolling with his nana. They spot three women in mermaid costumes. He gasps and decides that this is what he wants to do with his life — swim with fish underwater.
He gets obsessed with this dream, and when nobody is around, he starts using fabric in the house to build the mermaid costume, and admires himself in the mirror. But a part of him is scared of Nana’s reaction when she sees him. But little does he know that Nana just wants him to be happy, and if being mermaid makes him smile, she is on board with the plan.
Love’s innovative tale of pursuing your dreams weaves in timely lessons on acceptance and individuality.
Why Is My Hair Curly? by Lakshmi Iyer (Age 7-10)
In 2005, former banker Lakshmi Iyer was blogging about her brush with arranged marriage and other everyday challenges women face. Her posts struck a chord and women found them relatable. Around the same time, Iyer was also navigating the process of adoption and dealing with the diagnosis of infertility.
A few years later, her blogs and thoughts collided in this heartfelt children’s book about adoption.
In Why Is My Hair Curly?, Avantika and her brother Avnish know that they are adopted, and it’s not a topic shoved under the carpet in their house. But at every family gathering, when their cousins bully them, and they begin to notice that everybody has straight hair except for them, Avantika keeps thinking about her birth mother.
Plot thickens when a mysterious stranger with hair just like hers talks to her about her past. Iyer’s book is an intelligent addition to your kid’s collection, and tackles issues of identity, acceptance and family.
Noon Chai And A Story by Adithi Rao (Age 7-11)
Kashmir valley shrouded in snow, melts one illustration at a time, over some noon chai (the special salty pink tea from the region) with Amiya’s granny, in this beautiful book by Rao.
Young girl Amiya lives in the snowy Gurez Valley. In her school, she crosses paths with an uncle from a ‘faraway land’; he shows the kids a board book with lovely pictures, and asks them to build a collection. Sadly, there are no libraries or story books in her neighbourhood. Can she build one? She is too young to build a library, but she also lives with the greatest storyteller ever – Deidi, her grandmother. Every afternoon, she sits with her Deidi over noon chai, listening to her stories and writing them down, as her sister illustrates them. She then convinces the other students to do the same with their family members, to build their dream library.
Rao’s book showcases the warmth of Kashmir in all its glory, replete with acts of kindness in the valley, but not without touching upon the vein of conflict in the region. Lay the foundation blocks of chai pe charcha in your kid’s heart, with Noon Chai And A Story, a memorable little book about storytelling, family bonding and human connection.
When I Grow Up, I Want To Be by Tweak Books (Age 7-11)
Sure, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Ratan Tata are iconic to Indians across all ages. And while we continue to expand their fandom, we found a book that introduces us to other inspiring local heroes who we strongly feel belong to the same club of greatness.
The compilation of stories in When I Grow up, I Want To Be features local heroes — like the friendly next-door neighbour who also spearheaded the world’s largest beach clean-up drive, or the sweet granny in an Assamese village who saved hundreds of girls from witch-hunters. These modern day fairytales are nothing like anything you ever read as a kid.
Their experiences of overcoming challenges, told in language simple enough for children to understand but vivid enough for you to also enjoy story time — transport your mini-mes into a world of endless possibilities.
Letters To Ammi by Aftab Yusuf Shaikh (Age 7-11)
In the never-ending Delhi vs Mumbai fight, this book emerges to be the only winner. Written by a Mumbaikar, this children’s book is an ode to the old monuments of Delhi through the eyes of a young girl called Fatima who is visiting her uncle and aunt.
Part of publishing house Karadi Tales’s The City series, this looks like a travelogue of the capital city for young readers. But as you dig deep into one monument after another (from Qutub Minar to Humayun’s Tomb via Punara Qilla), Fatima, the young girl copes with the loss of her ammi jaan, and finds comfort in writing letters.
At each pitstop, Fatima looks back at a memory of her mother, and leaves a letter at the monument, making this a cathartic tale to help understand and deal with grief while discovering the history and heritage of our country.
PS: Karadi Tales just announced their Chennai book, and we can’t wait for a journey down south.