The “We Need Diverse Books” campaign is picking up steam and it looks like publishers are indeed making an effort to publish diverse picture books which reflect the multicultural world we live in. But what about classic picture books? There are indeed some wonderful diverse, multicultural books that many of us remember from our childhood.
Some of these titles you may recognize and I hope you will get to the library to read the others. As I explained in my series of classic book lists The term “classic” is extremely subjective. For personal self-esteem reasons I usually like to identify a classic as one that was written before I was born, but as that is increasingly difficult (no need to go down that road) these are limited to the 20th century, at least.
I never set out to make comprehensive book lists. That’s just impossible. I sometimes get emails that begin, “I can’t believe you left [insert popular book title here] off your list.” This sort of makes me giggle, because why reinvent the wheel? I want to tell you about new to you books! Instead, I invite you to add your favorite diverse picture book classics in the comments! (Note: book covers and titles are affiliate links.)
Umbrella. (1977) Taro Yashima earned a Caldecott honor for this sweet book about a 3 year old Japanese-American girl living in New York City who anxiously awaits the day when she will be able to use her new umbrella. I love the way Momo tries to come up with reasons she must use her umbrella even though it isn’t raining and the excitement she feels when the clouds finally come. The musical rhythm of the raindrops — ponpolo ponpolo — is infectious and your children may start to chant along with you. Also on my list of 21 books with diverse characters in everyday situations.
Gilberto and the Wind (1963) is a delightful book about a boy who plays with the wind. He experiences its effect on objects like bubbles, balloons and his hat, but my favorite part is how author and illustrator Marie Hall Ets captures the effect of the wind on Gilberto’s emotions.
The Doorbell Rang. (1989) I just read this book for my list of math books for preschoolers and I was pleasantly surprised by the diversity of the crowd of kids. The delightful story centers around how a plate of cookies will be divided amongst an ever growing group of people as the doorbell continues to ring and ring and ring.
The Boy Who Didn’t Believe in Spring. (1973) Chances are, this is a new one for you, but this classic is still readily available and with spring just around the corner, it’s a good time to pick up a copy. A pair of friends in the inner city set about finding the elusive season called “spring.” They venture beyond their usual haunts and when they find it, it is small, but amazing.
Down in the Subway (1998). Anyone who’s been on the NYC subway knows it is a microcosm of the world! Due to my sons’ obsessions with the subway we read this story over and over and over in our house! On a hot, summer day a young boy is entertained by the music and poetry of the Island Lady and the Calypso Man who turn the subway into an imaginative Caribbean wonderland. Bonus: illustrator Melanie Hope Greenberg offers readers of this blog a monthly coloring page, including this subway train maze.
Ben’s Trumpet (1979). Ben hangs out by the jazz club at night, listening to the various instruments. During the day, he plays his imaginary trumpet for his family and friends. One day, a few kids tease Ben but a musician comes to the rescue and invites Ben to practice on a real trumpet at the club. This is a lovely book about how a passion for music can enrich lives, inspire the imagination and bring people together.
Goggles!. (1969) Everyone is familiar with Ezra Jack Keats’ classic The Snowy Day, but don’t miss out on all his other wonderful books featuring the neighborhood gang. Goggles! stars Peter (from Keats’ best-loved book The Snowy Day) and his friend Archie. The pair find a pair of abandoned motorcycle goggles but a couple of big boys try to take them away. Peter and Archie, however, (along with Peter’s dog, Willie) are clever enough to evade the bigger kids.
Corduroy (1968) is so well known it hardly needs an introduction. Along with books like Keats’ The Snowy Day, Corduroy is an important picture book depicting people of color in everyday situations, something that was not common in the 1960s, when it was first published.
Just Us Women(1984) is a great, lesser known book about a girl and her aunt making a road trip, just the two of them. The girl describes the joyful experience of being about to make stops and see the sights on their own schedule. They can buy all the “junk” they want at flea markets, and eat dinner at the restaurant of their choosing. The pace of the book is leisurely and it may just make your kids want to head out to the road.
“More More More,” Said the Baby, (1996) one of my favorite books to buy for new moms, is a delightful classic. Vera B. Williams’ book is composed of three vignettes, each showing a grown up (daddy, grandma, mommy) playing with a baby. The three families are diverse: a white child, a bi-racial child and an Asian-American – all equally loved, all equally playful. At the end of each vignette the babies are tucked into bed by their loving grownup. A Caldecott Honor book.
William’s Doll. (1972) Diversity in literature is not always about ethnicity. In this book, which challenges traditional gender roles, William wants a doll to take care of but no one seems sympathetic! His friends tease him and even his father continues to buy him stereotypical boy’s toys in the hopes of squashing William’s request. The only adult who understands William is his grandmother who buys William a doll so William can “practice being a good father.” This classic book never gets old.
black is brown is tan. This marvelous 1973 classic book is a lovely, warm and poetic tribute to both the specialness and the normalcy of interracial families. It is an overwhelmingly positive book. A white dad and a black mom are loving parents to their “tan” kids. It will make you want to cuddle up with your own kids no matter what the color of your (or their) skin!
Who’s in Rabbit’s House? (1977) This story really captured the attention of my kids. As much as I love Verna Aardema’s Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears: A West African Tale because I remember it from my childhood, I like this title even more. That’s partly because the story is presented as a play, a conceit for which I have a particular fondness. Masai villagers gather together as actors don masks to perform the story of a group of animals who attempt to get a mysterious creature, the “long one”, out of rabbit’s house. As happens in many folktales, it is the smallest creature who has the most success. I have several more classic African folktale picture books on my list of African folktales for kids.
Tar Beach. (1991) This is an interesting book to me on so many levels. A family picnics on a hot summer evening on the roof of their Harlem apartment. A young girl imagines coasting through the starry sky on a blanket with her brother over the George Washington Bridge (you would be surprised at how many books there are that feature flights over NYC, I could make a list just about that!), which her father helped build. The girl’s optimistic dreams of her own future and the possibilities ahead of her do not gloss over the hardship that her family faces. Ringgold’s gorgeous illustrations are quilts come to life.
MORE LISTS TO EXPLORE:
- 21 Diverse Picture Books
- Multicultural Books for Babies and Toddlers
- Picture Books with Multiracial Families
- Books that Challenge Gender Sterotypes
- Diverse Poetry Books
Learn more at the We Need Diverse Books website.