Books & Toys for Introducing Race and Diversity to Young Kids
By Chelsey Hauge, PhD, Researcher & Educator in Gender Studies & Social Justice
The fact that book and toy aisles in the United States are disproportionately filled with white, non-diverse characters is well documented at this point. In the wake of the ongoing #blacklivesmatter and We Need Diverse Books movements, there has been a swell of momentum toward recognizing and filling this gap — however there is still much more work to be done.
As the mama of two mixed-race girls, as well as an academic focused on social justice and how children learn, I believe it's critically important to introduce kids to concepts of diversity (racial and otherwise) when they are still young. In this article I'll summarize why the research says it's important, and also share some of my favorite book, toy, and music picks for introducing the concepts of race and other sources of diversity to young kids (ages 0-4).
Note: The products featured below were hand-picked by the author; we did not receive any compensation for including any of them. This page may contain affiliate links, meaning we may receive a small commission on any purchases that you make (at no cost to you); see our full disclosure.
Why introducing diversity to kids is important
Research shows that reading books filled with characters that look like them supports toddlers’ development of positive self-concept. Additionally, plenty of research suggests that for white children as well as children of color, reading books with diverse representations lays the groundwork for raising sensitive children with an anti-racist outlook on the world.
Unfortunately, representations of children of color are often inauthentic, and there are few books for the really young set that are written by folks of color.
With older kids, there’s a pretty big movement to use critical race theory to help kids deconstruct monolithic and unfair representations of race in books and media. However, younger kids aren’t yet ready for these critical deconstructions. So with younger kids, the goal should just be to introduce them to concepts that will give them the language to talk about race in the future.
You can do this by introducing books and toys that feature diverse, nuanced characters to your child's playroom; by exposing your kids to diversity in real life (for example, by choosing what neighborhood you live in, what school your child attends, and/or how you spend your free time); and by acknowledging, openly discussing, and celebrating (!) the various types of diversity that you observe alongside your child in the world. These are all weighty topics, each worthy of a much longer discussion. For now, I'll focus the remainder of this article on the first, and perhaps easiest, one — the "stuff."
Books that directly tackle race & diversity
These books directly tackle the concepts of race/ethnicity, culture, and/or other sources of diversity, and promote acceptance and celebration of our differences.
All the Colors of the Earth (paperback $7, hardcover $15) is a true gem. An artistic masterpiece, the paintings are stunning and the descriptive language is rich and poetic even for the adult reading. It includes many descriptions of mixed-race families, and celebrates very diverse skin colors, often linking them with different parts of the earth and/or other worldly creatures. Recommended for toddlers and preschoolers.
In The Colors of Us (paperback $8, hardcover $17), the lead protagonist Lena is an artist, and she explores diverse skin tones as she likens them to everyday substances and imagines what kinds of paint colors she would use to represent them. A whimsical story, some of the characters fall into stereotypical roles, like Mr. Kashmir who wears a turban and sells spices — however, a parent trying to cultivate critical thinking with their child could use these moments to talk about what else Mr. Kashmir could do, and/or who else could sell spices. Recommended for toddlers and preschoolers.
Whoever You Are (paperback $4, board book $7, hardcover $13) stresses that children are the same all the world over. It’s repetitive language will be good for young children, who will recognize the poetic repetition, and it uses simple ideas for all little ones that there are little ones like them — feeling the same emotions and living in similar bodies: “love is the same, pain is the same, joy is the same, blood is the same.” Recommended for children 4-7, the rhythmic repetition makes this book a great choice for young toddlers as well. Recommended for toddlers and preschoolers.
The simple, brightly colored book It’s OK to Be Different (paperback $6, hardcover $13) names diverse kinds of difference for children. Including sections on adoption, it simple and clearly names the kinds of differences that children often notice — and which sometimes make adults uncomfortable! It’s OK To Be Different addresses differences like height, weight, skin color, and more in a simple fashion that will likely satisfy your little one’s curiosity. Recommended for toddlers and preschoolers.
This incredible book by Julius Lester ($7) introduces the premise that everyone has a story — of which race is just one part. It engages children in an interactive way, for example inviting them to feel the bones under their faces, and discussing how all of us look the same underneath our skin. It provides a wonderful springboard to discuss and celebrate the broad set of differences that make up individuals. Recommended for preschoolers.
Favorite children's author Rosemary Wells has hit another home run in Yoko (paperback $6), which features a little Japanese girl cat who initially gets singled out at school when her mom packs her favorite sushi and red bean ice cream for lunch. Luckily, her teacher comes up with a plan to nip their bullying in the bud. It's a wonderful tale of friendship and acceptance, told through food! Recommended for preschoolers.
I Love My Hair (board book/paperback $6) is a great one focused specifically on black hair, a topic around which many black girls and women experience discrimination. It tells the story of Keyana, providing a template for children to love their hair and feel proud of their heritage. Recommended for preschoolers.
Patty Rodriguez and Ariana Stein’s “Lil’ Libros” board book series introduces children to Latin American culture, history, and traditions. Titles include Counting with Frida/Contando Con Frida, Loteria: First Words/Primeras Palabras, Zapata: Colors/Colores, and Cuauhtemoc: Shapes/Formas ($7-8 each). All of these books are written bilingually, and they center on cultural content. While your child is reading about their first words, they are learning about Lotería and they are looking at culturally specific images. Likewise, both Counting with Frida and Zapata: Colors provide children with culturally rich activist histories while they are learning simple, appropriate content like counting or colors. Recommended for babies and toddlers.
This simple but powerful book about the many forms that family can take (hardcover $13) covers mixed-race families, single-parent households, two-mommy/two-daddy families, grandparent-led families, and more. The characters are all animals, which makes the concept of diverse families very easy to introduce — it'll be up to you to highlight analogs in the real world. Also see similar titles The Family Book by Todd Parr and Who's In My Family?: All About Our Families by Robie H. Harris.
This simple book (board book $7, hardcover $14) is brightly illustrated and provides you and your child with an activist guide to the alphabet. Letters are showcased with names and concepts including Malcolm X, Dolores Huerta, pride, and advocacy. A simple read to start thinking about the kinds of words and ideas to which you want to expose your young activist. Nagara has also written a second board book, Counting on Community, which uses culturally diverse symbols to count from one to ten. Recommended for babies and toddlers.
Books that happen to feature diverse characters
These books don't explicitly discuss the topics of race or other types of diversity, but feature "incidental diversity," i.e. they happen to feature main characters who are diverse. (In the case of this specific set of books, given limited space, we have focused primarily on racial diversity.) They provide a great opportunity to expose your little one to the diversity of our society and world in an effortless, yet still very important way.
This winner of the 1963 Caldecott medal (paperback $8, hardcover $13) captures the wonder and exuberance of a little boy exploring the magical first snowfall of the season. The first full color picture book featuring an African-American child, it practically invented the "incidental diversity" category and remains an easy and wonderful way to add some racial diversity to your child's bookshelf.
Based off her father Bob Marley’s song Three Little Birds, the book Every Little Thing (board book $6, hardcover $11) includes the lyrics to the original song and adds new verses too. Reminiscent of the same peace and love messages you may recall from Bob Marley, children read the story of a little boy who stays happy and carefree always, especially with the help of three little birds. Recommended for preschoolers.
Written by two psychologists, F is for Feelings (paperback $10, hardcover $16) is great for the toddler set learning to express big feelings. Giving little ones the language to convey feelings like “I am angry” and “I feel sad,” the illustrations feature children of different races and cultures. Recommended for toddlers and preschoolers.
The sweet board book Girl of Mine ($6) tells the story of a little dark-skinned girl playing in the moonlight. A simple, joyful story, Girl of Mine is sure to bring a smile to your face. Boy of Mine is the companion story for boys, featuring a boy with lighter skin (but still with some room for racial ambiguity). Both are recommended for toddlers and preschoolers. We also love Whose Toes Are These and Whose Knees Are These, from the same author — both perfect for toddlers still learning body parts.
The joyful ode to self-appreciation I Like Myself (board book $6, hardcover $13) features a little African-American girl who is self-confident through and through. A sweet story to help children identify their differences and quirks and celebrate them, the lead character is a girl of color and her story is silly, hopeful, and could elicit a simple early conversation about the way we perceive difference. Recommended for preschoolers.
This gorgeous title (hardcover $11) won the 2015 Newbery Medal — only the second time a picture book has won the award for best overall children's book. It follows CJ, a dark-skinned boy who rides the bus home from church every Sunday with his grandma. He wonders aloud at why he doesn't have a car or an iPod, and why they get off in the gritty part of town — but his grandma's responses help him to see the beauty in the world around him and be thankful for what he has. Set against an urban backdrop, this book is a true gem that not only features a racially diverse cast of characters, but will also allow you to start discussing the concept of socioeconomic diversity. Recommended for preschoolers.
Fun rhyming book Soo’s Boo-Boos profiles a little Asian girl who gets a lot of boo-boos. Lucky for Soo, her mother knows ten different ways to make her feel better. This book is a great one for toddlers learning to count. Recommended for older toddlers and preschoolers.
Toys featuring diverse characters
North American Bear Company makes these adorable baby dolls ($20 each) in a variety of skin tones, including this lovely “tan” shade which is somewhat racially ambiguous and could pass for Latino, mixed race, Indian, or a number of other races. The features on their faces also leave room for racial ambiguity. There are boy and girl versions available. We also love the similar “beige”-toned plush doll from Manhattan Toy ($28).
These beautiful, realistic vinyl play dolls, designed by Berenguer and manufactured by JC Toys, are available in African-American, Asian, Latino, and Caucasian flavors ($13 each). They’re perfect either for giving your child a doll that looks just like him or her, or for just for introducing some racial variety into his or her collection. Designed for ages 18+ months.
This basket of baby dolls ($29) includes six, ten-inch-high plush babies in varying shades of light and dark in a basket that makes them easy to tote around. The dolls wear simple, removable smocks in pastel colors and have sewn-on matching hats.
This set of magnetic dress-up dolls ($14) includes two flat double-sided wooden girl dolls, for a total of four dress-up canvases: one with a darker skin tone and kinky black hair, one with a medium skin tone and brown hair, and two with light skin tones. They come with a wide variety of mix-and-match dress-up items, and are perfect for fridge play for older toddlers while you cook dinner!
Putamayo Kids Presents World Sing-Along ($12) is full of great children’s music from all over the world, and includes songs in English and in other languages. They also have a number of other collections from different parts of the world.
Un Bosque Encantado is a collection of children’s music in Spanish that integrates salsa, merengue, and other Latin musical traditions. It is upbeat, and is as pleasant for children to listen to as it is for the adults!
About the author:
Chelsey Hauge is a feminist-researcher-mama-writer-artist who loves all things digital. She is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Brock University's Social Justice Research Institute and Visiting Assistant Professor at Mills College. Her research focuses on how children experience gender in learning environments, and she's really interested in how older kids and youth learn from social media. You can learn more about Chelsey's work at www.chelseyhauge.com.