Reading to the Zoo: Authentic Diversity in Children’s Books

I came across the question the other day: Do diverse animals in children’s books help kids appreciate diversity?

It’s a fair question, considering that it seems like there are more kids books with animal characters than human ones. And, it would be nice to think that the parade of animal pals in the Llama, Llama books or on Daniel Tiger are teaching the value of diversity. But, the answer isn’t that simple.

While a motley crew of animals may be a good read, it’s important for kids to see diverse human characters. The point isn’t for kids to see lots of different faces, but for them to see faces and situations that mirror their own lives or make them ask questions about what other people are like. (And, kids figure out pretty quickly that animated cats and owls don’t really play together in real life, just like they don’t talk or go to the doctor.)

Also, as most of the books with animals for characters appeal to younger readers, it’s important that we don’t rely on animals for diversity. As Teaching Tolerance points out, kids between the ages of three and five are forming their ideas about gender roles, while kids in early elementary school (grades K-2) are forming their identities and defining what’s similar and different in the people around them. They need books to help them define what’s normal, and reading about all the ways animals can be friends isn’t enough.

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