An illustration from Wab Kinew's "Go Show the World: A Celebration of Indigenous Heroes," by Joe Morse. (Photo courtesy Penguin Random House Canada)

Topics: Ethical Living | Opinion

This Christmas, consider looking beyond classic children’s books

How nostalgia stifles diversity on kids' bookshelves

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Children’s books have changed—but our buying habits have not.

For many of us, buying a book for a new baby or a beloved young relative is a chance to revisit happy memories. We buy them the books that once brought us joy, secure in the knowledge of a cultural job well done. But this nostalgia-based shopping has unexpected consequences: it stifles efforts to introduce new, diverse voices to our children’s bookshelves.

I recently dove into BookNet Canada’s statistics for our country’s most-purchased picture books in 2019. The top 10 list I synthesized still includes the classic titles The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969), Love You Forever (1986), and Oh, the Places You’ll Go! (1960), plus other titles at least a decade old. One book, Sharon, Lois and Bram’s Skinnamarink, is newly published—but it capitalizes on the nostalgia of young parents who remember the 1980s popularization of a song from 1910.

In fact, the only top-10 picture book that was fairly new and was not a follow-up to an existing bestseller was 2017’s Dear Girl by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Paris Rosenthal. This was also the only title with no white, male author; its illustrator, Holly Hatam, is one of only two creators of colour on the list. 


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Why does this matter? Books are incredibly powerful tools for building a child’s worldview. Understanding the experiences of others—something that reading stories by and about people with different lives makes possible—is essential for creating an equitable and empathetic society. Diverse representation also means that all kids can see themselves as heroes, authors, illustrators, and leaders in cultural dialogue. 

Recent years have seen a strong movement to diversify the children’s book industry, from the stories that are told; to the creators who tell them; to the agents, publishers, and editors who mold the final product. Progress is being made, slowly, on the first two points. Books by BIPOC, LGBTQ2+, and disabled authors are making waves among critics and award juries. But this progress will be limited as long as consumers cling to their old favourites.

To understand the full impact of consumer choices, it’s important to know something about how books are sold. Major retailers make their decisions about how many copies of a book to pre-order many months before it’s published. Those pre-ordering decisions are increasingly based on the success of other recent titles with the same themes. Strong sales of recent comparable titles mean high pre-orders, which might lead the publisher to increase the book’s print run and even improve its marketing budget. 

The result of all this is that buying a diverse or innovative book today doesn’t just help that book; it sends ripples through the entire industry to encourage the publication of similar books over the next few years. 

Am I suggesting we throw away our old classics? Not at all, although we should think critically about whether they have aged well. But we are sitting on an untapped treasure trove of picture books that inspire, entertain, educate, and make big ideas accessible to little readers. To grow that treasure, all we have to do is enjoy it more fully. 

Here are some ways you can support the publication of diverse books:

  • Learn about new titles through newspapers, journals, and book blogs 
  • Pay attention to independent Canadian publishers, which often have mandates to publish diverse books 
  • Prove the demand for new diverse books by pre-ordering
  • Shop through independent bookstores if you can; usually, a higher percentage of these sales is passed on to the author
  • Explore the curated lists at the Social Justice & Diversity Book Bank hosted by the Canadian Children’s Book Centre

 Your Christmas tip sheet: Children’s books by diverse Canadian authors

These recommended titles were provided by the Canadian Children’s Book Centre.

(Photo courtesy Orca Book Publishers)

Babies, ages 0–3

Little You

Written by Richard Van Camp

Illustrated by Julie Flett

Orca Book Publishers

Available in English and in several bilingual editions, a poetic celebration of a baby’s small and mighty presence in a family.

 

Picture Book, ages 4–7

Salma the Syrian Chef

Written by Danny Ramadan

Illustrated by Anna Bron

Annick Press

Celebrate empowerment, food, and community with the story of a young new Canadian, formerly a Syrian refugee, who cooks up a way to make her mama smile.

 

(Photo courtesy Penguin Random House Canada)

Non-Fiction, ages 5–9

Go Show the World: A Celebration of Indigenous Heroes

Written by Wab Kinew

Illustrated by Joe Morse

Tundra Books

This illustrated nonfiction book highlights Indigenous leaders and heroes, reminding all North Americans—even those without Indigenous ancestry—that “some part of your character has an Indigenous identity.”

 

Junior Fiction, ages 8–12

(Photo courtesy Penguin Random House Canada)

Dragons in a Bag

Written by Zetta Elliott

Random House Books for Young Readers

Fantasy can be about anyone, anywhere—including a boy who finds himself in an inner-city apartment with a clutch of hatchling dragons.

 

(Photo courtesy Groundwood Books)

YA Fiction (graphic novel), ages 14 and up

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me

Written by Mariko Tamaki

Illustrated by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell

Groundwood Books

Toxic relationships are confronted with honesty and compassion in this graphic novel about a 17-year-old girl whose girlfriend repeatedly dumps her.

 

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Erin Alladin is a children’s book editor and author living near Parry Sound, Ont.


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