10 Children’s Books with Diverse Characters

10 Children’s Books with Diverse Characters

By Kara Pleasants

In a world as rich and varied as ours, our bookshelves must reflect the wonderful diversity of the people who populate it. Literature is a transformative experience for us as readers. Research shows that story-telling helps us develop empathy for our fellow humans, and better process our emotions in our own lives. 

Research shows that story-telling helps us develop empathy for our fellow humans, and better process our emotions in our own lives. 

Having a diverse bookshelf is not just for niche groups—it’s good for all of us to open up our world to experiences and ideas of others around us. For me, a reckoning came when my youngest daughter, who is disabled, came to the age where identifying with storybook characters is an important part of imaginative play—and there were literally no characters on our bookshelves or in our Netflix que who had physical disabilities. This pushed me to expand our bookshelves and be more proactive.

Just like it’s important to see from others’ perspectives, children must also see themselves in what they read: as vital members of their communities. And so, here are ten books that are simply amazing stories and beautifully reflect the rich tapestry of our lives with characters from different backgrounds, ethnicities, genders, and ability. 

  1. My Heart Fills with Happiness by Monique Gray Smith. Available as a picture book and a board book, this story explores what happiness is in a series of lovely phrases and images featuring First Nation children in happy spaces: outside in nature, inside with grandparents, holding the hands of loved ones. Gray Smith is a Canadian author with ancestry that includes Cree, Lakota, and Scottish. My children love the simplicity of this book: that we are happy with those we love, in the spaces we love, enjoying the little things.
  2. God’s Dream by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The Archbishop’s book presents a simple argument: that we are all children of God, and that we are loved as we are and because of our differences. I love that this book is not afraid to confront conflict and offer children a way towards reconciliation. It’s also written in second person, addressing the reader and “you” even as we follow a little girl who has dreams of her own and encounters other children as she explores her own identity and personhood. 
  3. Coming On Home Soon by Jacqueline Woodson. Set in the 1940s, this is a multigenerational tale focusing on three Black women supporting each other through the war: a daughter, mother, and grandmother. A little kitten also makes a memorable appearance. This story teaches important lessons about the beauty of hope, the pain of separation, and what it can feel like to wait—but Woodson masterfully shows rather than tells, and lets us feel through an authentic experience.
  4. My Travelin’ Eye by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw. The author and illustrator is the main character of this story, and she explains what her experience with strabismus. I love everything about this book: Kostecki-Shaw both accepts and celebrates her disability, renaming what people often call a “wandering eyes” as a “travelin’ eye” to illustrate the positive visual psychological aspects of the condition. She also describes the treatment process and grappling with changes that come with it. 
  5. Big Red Lollipop by Rukhasana Khan. This story has several layers. It’s about a Muslim family living in America and learning to fit it. It’s about the generational conflict that can occur when first generation immigrant parents are raising children born in America. It’s also about sibling rivalry and the beauty of learning as you grow—a message that resonates for every family everywhere. 
  6. Rosie the Raven by Helga Hansch. In this story, a tiny girl hatches out of an egg and it thereby born into a family of ravens. She struggles to adapt, but ultimately learns to both be part of her raven family and also accept her own unique qualities. This is a versatile book because it’s a metaphor that is representative of the world of disability, which itself if complex and varied. It’s empowering for children and thought-provoking for parents, who play a key role in supporting their children’s independence. 
  7. The Paperbag Princess by Robert Munsch. This enchanting tale flips the traditional princess story on its head. Elizabeth is a princess who doesn’t need saving, and who can outsmart anyone (boy or dragon). This book encourages girls to be themselves and to be strong—and it’s also hilarious. 
  8. Everybody Poops by Tao Gomi. For another hilarious but also informative read, Gomi’s book delightfully reassures children that everyone poops because everyone eats. We learn about different animals and types of poop, and all of it is presented appropriately and understandably even for young ages. 
  9. My Bed: Enchanting Ways to Fall Asleep Around the World by Rebecca Bond and illustrated by Salley Mavor. My artist grandmother gifted this book to my youngest this year, and I can see why: Salley Mavor hand stitched and photographed every scene in the book with stunning detail to go along with Bond’s lovely phrases about falling to sleep in different across the world. This book will make you want to try sleeping in all kind of places: in hammocks, on a rug, or on a stove. It might also make you want to hand stitch tiny dolls and furniture and houses of your very own.
  10.  Hands and Hearts by Donna Jo Mapoli. This heartwarming story is about a mother and daughter and their day at the beach—told with words and accompanying instructions for American Sign Language. I love that in this story, you cannot tell whether one or the other character is Deaf (or both) because each signs at different points. What is most important is that they communicate their love to each other with words, signs, and actions. 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this list, which is just a start. I’m still on the lookout for books with main characters with agency who wear braces or use a walker/wheelchair.  What books are you reading that have opened up your world or supported you where you are? 


About the author: Kara is a teacher, author, and mother of two vivacious daughters. A Maryland native, she and her husband are restoring an 18th-century farm in Susquehanna State Park. Her writing centers on literature, art, nature, disability, and working parenthood.
Photo credit: iStock.com/Orbon Alija
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