Five years ago, I was assigned to teach Grade 12 English for the first time in years. Eager to prepare, I visited our school book room, but came away feeling uninspired by the options: 1984, Animal Farm, Fifth Business, and lots of Shakespeare.
Having just taught Ontario’s Grade 11 Gender Studies course, which had opened my mind to intersectional ways of thinking, I couldn’t help but notice that the writers populating the shelves presented a very narrow demographic: they were mostly Western, white, male, and long dead.
Thoughts rattled around in my brain. What messages was I sending to students with my book choices? Whose voices were missing? What if I changed everything and sought out texts that better represented my students and community?
That year I made a bold choice to ditch the Bard and privilege the voices of women and contemporary writers of colour. I designed an independent study focusing on under-represented voices in literature, film, and art. These decisions not only opened the door to a new literary world, but delighted my students and re-energized my teaching.
No matter what age range you teach, you too can diversify your teaching library. Wondering why you should, and where to begin? Start with the 3 ‘R’s.
Representation matters. Our curricula and book choices should reflect our students’ diverse identities and experiences.
The Canadian literary scene has recently exploded with LGBTQ+ authors, Indigenous artists, and diverse writers making waves. Think of Vivek Shraya’s beautifully inclusive picture book The Boy and the Bindi or Cherie Dimaline’s dystopian tale The Marrow Thieves. These stories may not yet be part of the traditional canon, but they offer unique and compelling tales worth sharing with young people.
Understand that the book choices we make send implicit messages to students. When we present a narrow selection of artists, we make value judgements about those whose works are ‘important’ and worthy of study, and those whose aren’t.
I often ask my students about the books they’ve studied in school. What were the backgrounds of the writers? How long ago were the books written? Have they encountered protagonists who reflected their own identities? The responses are telling. Young women are often asked to place themselves in the position of male protagonists, but young men rarely get asked to see the world from a female point of view.
This invisibility is a common experience for many, including Indigenous peoples, Québécois, LGBTQ+ folks, and differently-abled people, all of whom are rarely represented in school literature. It is as if we are saying that their experiences are not considered ‘universal’ enough to understand, and that perception needs to change.
By choosing books that reflect a multitude of identities, teachers can affirm the backgrounds of students and open up their worldview. We can help them to see themselves and their own stories as important and worthy of attention.
Another reason to diversify our booklists? There are so many fantastic books out there waiting to be discovered! Look for works of literature that are relevant because they speak to the world we live in today, or illuminate areas of life to which we may not have access.
My students loved Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which tells the tale of a young black girl who comes of age in an abusive home during the Nigerian war. Though Kambili’s experiences were far from our own in downtown Toronto, the book opened up rich discussions about parent-child relationships and the enduring impact of colonization in Africa.
For those of us who teach in less diverse communities, it is even more important to expose students to multiple points of view. It helps to engender empathy and understanding and combat harmful stereotypes. Reading diverse works can create opportunities for critical literacy, as we deconstruct power and privilege and engage in courageous conversations about racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia.
To find diverse writers for my classroom, I made a pledge to research and read books by female writers, LGBTQ+ artists, Indigenous writers, and authors of colour. In my search I have discovered many contemporary masterpieces, and I haven’t looked back since.
Here’s how you can get started on your own reading journey.
Check out award winner lists, especially those that recognize artists from under-represented groups, such as the Lambda Literary Awards for LGBTQ+ writers or the Caldecott Medal, which awards a wide range of children’s literature.
Find forward-thinking bookstores that celebrate diversity, such as Good Minds, which stocks over 3,000 titles of Indigenous works from Preschool to Adult. Other fantastic stores include Another Story Bookshop and A Different Booklist in Toronto. You can find a children’s bookstore near you using the online database from the Canadian Children’s Book Centre.
Great literature is literally at your fingertips—an internet search can connect you to useful websites, blogs, and booklists. Some of my favourites include A Mighty Girl, ‘the world’s largest collection of books and movies for smart, confident, and courageous girls’; beloved educator Dr. Larry Swartz’s ‘Larry Recommends’ blog; and @loveyolibrary, an Instagram account featuring up-and-coming books for children, curated by Toronto-area teacher Brendon Allen.
Other Useful Links
The American Indians in Children’s Literature Blog, which deconstructs and evaluates representations of Indigenous peoples in children’s books
Pinterest’s Diversity in Children’s Books collection
A Beginning Book List for Educators
Kindergarten-Primary (ages 4-7)
French Toast by Kari-Lynn Winters and François Thisdale
The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi
Under My Hijab by Hena Khan and Aaliya Jaleel
The Can Man by Laura E. Williams and Craig Orback
Not Quite Narwhal by Jessie Sima
The Boy in the Bindi by Vivek Shraya
The Sissy Duckling by Harvey Fierstein
I am Jazz by Jazz Jennings
Don’t Touch My Hair! by Sharee Miller
Not My Girl by Christy Jordan-Fenton
Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty
I am Josephine by Jan Thornhill and Jacqui Lee
A Family is a Family is a Family by Sara O’Leary and Qin Leng
Sky Sisters by Jan Waboose Bourdeau
Morning on the Lake by Jan Waboose Bourdeau
Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan and Sophie Blackall
Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold
Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky by Faith Ringgold
Nappy Hair by Caroliva Herron
The Arrival by Shaun Tan
Flight Explorer by Kazu Kibuishi
A Long Walk to Water: Based on a True Story by Linda Sue Park
The Skin I’m In by Sharon Flake
Riding the Tiger by Eve Bunting and David Frampton
The Outlaw by Nancy Vo
I Am Malala and I Am Malala Young Readers Edition by Malala Yousafzai, Christina Lamb
The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis
Refugee by Alan Kratz
Shannen and the Dream for a School by Janet Wilson
Fatty Legs by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton
Blended by Sharon Draper
Rad American Women by Katie Schatz
Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness by Anastasia Higginbotham
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Ask Me No Questions by Marina Tamar Budhos
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Monster by Walter Dean Myers
Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection, edited by Hope Nicholson
Daughter of War by Marsha Skrypuch
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
American Street by Ibi Zoboi
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali by Sabrina Khan
Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan
Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle
George by Alex Gino
Ghost by Jason Reynolds
Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed
No Fixed Address by Susin Nielson
Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart
Kimchi & Calamari by Rose Kent
I Am an Emotional Creature: the Secret Life of Girls around the World by Eve Ensler
The Mi’kmaq Anthology, Volume 2: In Celebration of the Life of Rita Joe by Lesley Choyce et al.
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline
Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Brother by David Chariandy
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
She Walks for Days Inside a Thousand Eyes: A Two-Spirit Journey by Sharron Proulx-Turner
Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez
Tomboy Survival Guide by Ivan Coyote
Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson
That Time I Loved You by Carrianne Leung