When we first started developing the Whole Phonics™ program, one goal was clear from the start: We wanted to create readers that would spark joy for young readers. One of the most important pieces of this joy, as many teachers have observed, is a child’s ability to relate to the characters in a story. If a child can relate to characters’ problems and story lines, they are much more likely to stay engaged and genuinely enjoy the reading process.
But this idea goes deeper than coming up with plot lines that allow students to understand characters’ actions and dilemmas. Plain and simple: All students deserve to be represented in the texts they read. There is a significant diversity gap in children’s literature, one that must be rectified to make learning to read, and to enjoy reading, a level playing field for our learners.
Children Need to See Themselves
Take a look at your bookshelves, and you’ll notice a pattern emerging. Readers generally gravitate towards texts in which they see themselves. Walking around a library, we are more likely to engage with a book if there is something about a character that strikes a chord; something we can relate to. We use books as mirrors of our reality, and children are no different—so they need equal access to books in which they can see themselves.
“Once children see themselves represented in books, their existence is validated, and they feel that they are part of the world.”
— Eric Velasquez, award winning author and illustrator
Beyond seeing themselves in literature, it is important for young readers to see others represented in the books that they read. Diversity in children’s books—the inclusion of character of all colors, genders, abilities, and family structures—directly impacts their understanding of the world and of their community. This helps children develop one of the most important elements: empathy. The more children read about diverse characters, the more acceptance and empathy they will extend to others in real life.
“Diversity is recognized as an important part of empathy and acceptance, particularly for youth, and it’s important that children experience some level of diversity in the stories we tell them.”
— Shannel O’ Neal, Chicago Hopes for Kids
Other experts have studied the diversity problem in children’s literature at length. Author Grace Lin, in a beautiful and eye-opening Ted Talk, asserts that young readers’ bookshelves are full of “windows and mirrors” that can “show you the world, but also show a reflection of yourself.” We highly recommend taking the time to watch her talk.
Along with my illustrator Darren McKee, we designed the entire Whole Phonics™ program with diversity in mind. In our readers, you’ll find a delightful cast of multicultural characters — fill your young reader’s bookshelves with “windows and mirrors” that represent the beauty of our society.
Using this free template, encourage your young readers to choose a favorite character to write about. Feel free to share their favorites with us, and we'll post them online.
Look Inside to meet the characters: