Creating Friendships Across Difference: The Diverse BookFinder Story

We believe that too many children are left out of mainstream picture books, so we research who is currently represented — and how — to spark conversation and change.

It’s not immediately clear to people how a Psychologist like me found her way to multicultural picture books, so let me take a moment to tell you a little about myself and my path. I’ll reveal a lot about the Diverse BookFinder along the way -- what it is and what you can use it to do.

Why Children’s Picture Books? Lessons from My Daughter

I’m a mixed race woman raising mixed race children (black/white). I started working with multicultural picture books about 10 years ago when my eldest daughter was in elementary school.

Our town had historically been predominantly White and was struggling to welcome Somali refugees. Shortly after my daughter entered school our neighborhood was redistricted, transforming the school from almost exclusively white to more than half Somali.

As someone who studied race and racial identity I watched this transformation carefully, tracking responses, hoping that both communities (Somali and non-Somali) would allow themselves to change and be changed by the shift. As someone who has always focused on child development, I was particularly interested in how the children would be affected. Psychological research has well established the pervasiveness of prejudice among children under the age of 10. There is incontrovertible evidence of the existence of ingroup favoritism and, in many cases, outgroup derogation among children in regards to ethnicity, gender, body size, language, nationality and even more arbitrary categorizations. I was optimistic, but concerned about how the transition would go and unaware of whether the community we’d lived in for only a few years was ready to guide our children.

Given my background and training I have always been open in discussing issues of race, ethnicity and culture; they are not taboo subjects in my home. This is probably why my daughter came to me with lots of questions she heard from her friends after the school transition.

She asked:

  • “Mom, am I Somali? The kids at school want to know.”
  • “If I’m not Somali, the kids say I can’t play with Somali children. Is that true?”
  • “We played dodgeball at recess today -- Somali against non-Somali -- and no one knew which team I was supposed to play on. They decided I should play with the Somali kids because I’m brown. Is this right?”

As you can imagine, listening to these questions was heart wrenching. My daughter’s best friend at the time, a white girl, was not immune to the tension. She was the one who told my daughter to play with the Somali children, effectively othering and isolating her -- leaving her nowhere to belong.

Concerned, I looked to Psychology for answers and found research being conducted in England. Teams were using picture books to help break down barriers between refugee and non-refugee children. I applied for a grant and took my family to England to meet and learn from the British researchers so that I could bring their ideas to my town. Once I returned, I used my training and position as a research Psychologist to propose a similar study. We would investigate how kids respond to depictions of cross-racial friendships in picture books.

I randomly assigned children to two groups: the first group was read books that depicted Somali and non-Somali children playing together and having fun. The second group was read similar books, but with white children playing.

After six weeks, we found that non-Somali children in the first group reported greater comfort and interest in playing with Somali children, and vice versa, versus children in the second group.

Inspiration for Diverse BookFinder

The fact that reading cross-group books can have an impact on children’s attitudes was great news. The bad news? We had to write our own books for this research because we couldn’t find one single trade book published in the United States depicting this type of friendship (Somali/non-Somali).

This really got us wondering -- what books are out there for children? What messages might they send and what might their impact be?

That’s how the Diverse BookFinder was born.

We collected all trade picture books featuring human characters of color and Native/First Nation peoples published since 2002 so we could closely examine them to better understand who is represented within them (character racial/cultural background) and how (what is the book’s dominant message? Is it Oppression? To teach about culture?).

Providing Data and Analysis to Enhance the Discussion

We share this full collection of books for free with the world through the Diverse BookFinder.org. Anyone can use this tool to identify books featuring characters from a racial/cultural background of interest, or to identify books on a topic of interest featuring a multicultural character(s). All of the books listed online circulate nationally through Interlibrary Loan.

It is our hope that everyone can use the Diverse BookFinder to see who is represented within diverse books as a whole and who is not -- as well how they are being represented to children. Using these numbers we can advocate for change. This knowledge empowers us to understand trends, gaps and enhance the representations available via children’s picture books for the future.