Embracing diversity through picture books

Published on Tuesday, 18 May 2021
Last updated on Thursday, 13 May 2021

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New Zealand is one of the most culturally diverse nations in the world. The 2018 census showed that of the New Zealand residents surveyed, 27.4 per cent of people counted were not born in New Zealand, up from 25.2 per cent in 2013.

“Those with an overseas birthplace were born in almost every country in the world, including 15 people born at sea,” census general manager Kathy Connolly said in a Stats NZ article on the topic of diversity in New Zealand.

Three years later, that figure has only increased, and it is reflected by the diversity of children enrolled in early childhood education centres throughout the country.

To support greater acceptance and understanding of this diversity in our society, teachers can encourage children in early learning environments to embrace their differences, showing them how experiencing a variety of cultures enriches the lives of everyone.

One way to do this in everyday activities is to introduce picture books into your reading time that celebrate diversity of all kinds, and to read them alongside the children’s existing favourites.

Including books with ethnically diverse characters, which showcase the intricacies of international cultures, will also support children from those cultures in your care, helping them to feel more seen, heard and validated than if they were seeing only people of European backgrounds in the stories they read. 

While diversity is an international theme in children’s literature, there are also a number of locally created titles that introduce the idea to a New Zealand audience. If you are looking for titles specific to New Zealand, please take a look at the New Zealand Picture Book Collection.

Here are 10 picture books, from New Zealand and the rest of the world, that do a wonderful job of celebrating cultural differences and highlighting the many similarities we all share as people, no matter where we come from.

  1. Everywhere Babies by Susan Meyers and Marla Frazee

Showing that everywhere around the world, we all start out in the same way, doing the same things such as playing, sleeping and being noisy, this happy rhyming tale brings to light that inside and out we are all just people who are loved and valued for who - not what - we are. 

  1. Happy in Our Skin by Fran Manushkin and Lauren Tobia

A lovely celebration of skin of all shades, whether cinnamon coloured or peaches and cream. This book follows a biracial family through a normal day in their lives, from a picnic in the park to the local pool and on to a neighbourhood party, all while covering the many miraculous benefits of having skin no matter what it looks like; “It’s terrific to have skin, it keeps the outsides out and your insides in.”

  1. Mere McKaskill’s Boil Up by Tracy Duncan

Happy, bubbly Mere McKaskill wants to cook a traditional Kiwi boil up, so she travels through her neighbourhood to visit her friends, covering a variety of cultures represented by her butcher, greengrocer and more, and then by the host of people who come to share lunch at her table.

  1. The Marble Maker by Sacha Cotter and Josh Morgan

A young girl wants to make a unique marble, to be listed in the Book of Marbles and make her mark on history. The story centres around the marble maker, who just happens to have brown skin, but focuses on her achievements and creativity rather than her ethnicity, the way it should be. A Maori language version is also available.

  1. Watercress Tuna and the Children of Champion Street by Patricia Grace and Robyn Kahukiwa

On Champion Street, children of different cultures are brought together by the power of a magic fish and music, embracing the power of dance to break down barriers and bring everyone together.

  1. Child of Aotearoa by Melanie Drewery and Bruce Potter

“A line woven of threads from many lands… passed down to you, child of Aotearoa.” This book looks back at the history and ancestry of the people of New Zealand. It talks about how the tribes came to the land of Aotearoa, and fought for their piece, and encourages the children of New Zealand to feel pride in their country and their history, no matter where they live or what their bloodlines.

Detailed illustrations show people with a mix of skin colours, all claimed as children of Aotearoa.   

  1. Lovely by Jess Hong

The visible differences between a wide range of people are acknowledged, accepted and celebrated in this book, which also challenges preconceived notions and expected associations to show the beauty in everyone and everything.

Single words encompass a description of each person pictured throughout the book, such as ‘fancy’ for a pair of stubbly legs in high heels, and ‘sporty’ for a person with one leg and a prosthetic leg wearing a pair of runners.  

  1. Little Treasures by Jacqueline Ogburn and Chris Raschka

Honey, bao bei, ma chérie, these and more are the terms of endearment people around the world use for the children they cherish. Using language as a vehicle to highlight diversity and similarities at once, this book explores these terms from around the world that show we all have one essential thing in common - love. 

  1. The Inventor by Reina Vaai and Kate Key

Written by a woman wearing many hats, including lawyer, director and writer, this story introduces a young Pacific Islander girl in South Auckland who works to invent a machine to wake up her big brother. As the author herself said in a TP+ article, regarding the depiction of a main character who is from a minority culture, “Pacific children want to see characters that look like them. Equally as important, children from other backgrounds should also celebrate seeing Pacific children and stories too.”

  1. All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold and Suzanne Kaufman

A New York Times bestseller, this last story features a school where everyone is welcomed and accepted, no matter their ethnicity, skin colour, cultural clothing or religion. While the words ‘All are welcome here’ are reiterated throughout, it’s the images that make the strongest point. They show children of different colours, in different cultural garb learning together, playing together, eating together and enjoying their day with their friends.

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