Fabulous Children’s Picture Books with Diverse Representation

Have you ever noticed that all the animals in the popular children’s lift-the-flap book Dear Zoo are male? Every single one.

It’s not an isolated example.

Looking at almost 6,000 children’s books published between 1900 and 2000, the study, led by Janice McCabe, a professor of sociology at Florida State University, found that males are central characters in 57% of children’s books published each year, with just 31% having female central characters. Male animals are central characters in 23% of books per year, the study found, while female animals star in only 7.5%.

[Read more at The Guardian.]

How many of your favourite picture books feature humans that aren’t white? Not many, right?

The Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education has conducted a survey of children’s and young adult books published each year since 1985. Of an estimated 5,000 books released in 2012, only 3.3% featured African-Americans; 2.1% featured Asian-Americans or Pacific Islanders; 1.5% featured Latinos; and only 0.6% featured Native Americans. God forbid you have the audacity to be a girl of color and expect to see yourself as cherished by our culture.

[Read more at The Huffington Post.]

Does it matter?

Yes. It sure does.

It matters to kids and adults who don’t see themselves in books, and get the message – in print – that they are invisible and unimportant in wider society.

It matters to everyone affected by white male privilege, which is fuelled further by generations of little boys growing up seeing the world revolve around them and their interests, even in fiction.

It matters to kids who struggle with reading and feel excluded from the books they read. It matters.

So let’s put our book-purchasing and library-lending voices towards books that show the whole range of humanity. Let’s say ‘no’ to sexism, racism and ableism in kids’ books.

I enjoyed putting together this list of kids’ television shows with a range of characters, and thought I’d now also collect up a few of our favourite books – just a bunch that we actually have on our own shelves – that help show a more diverse world than mainstream media favours.

I hope you’ll add your favourites in a comment at the end. This is of course not intended as any kind of exhaustive list, just a bunch of titles you might not have come across yet. Let’s make an enormous collection!


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1. Roadworks (or Roadwork)

by Sally Sutton, illustrated by Brian Lovelock

First up is Sally Sutton’s Roadworks (published as Roadwork in some parts of the world), part of a wonderful series of rhyming books about the real-life processes of building. There’s also Demolition and Construction (that’s my favourite – it turns out they’re building a library).

Fabulous Children's Picture Books with Diverse Characters | Sacraparental.com

These would be superb books on their text alone, with their punchy rhythm and rhyme. Every part of the building process has a full crew doing real jobs – just ask an engineer or digger operator friend.

Brian Lovelock’s illustrations are brilliant, too, and lift this above the crowd of ‘digger books’. People who are drawn to look like women are working on every page, and the crews include people with every shade of skin colour. Anyone can find someone who looks a bit like them or their families, all dressed up in a hard-hat and high-viz safety vest, doing a useful, grown-up job.

A friend pointed out that of all the people pictured, only 20 per cent were clearly presenting as female. This surprised me, as women’s presence really stands out to me in these books, and perhaps goes to show how conditioned we are to expect only men in such books. On the positive side, there’s someone with a ponytail on practically every page, and you can’t say that about many other construction books.

There’s also a version in te reo Māori!


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2. Oh Hogwash, Sweet Pea!

by Ngāreta Gabel, translated and adapted into English by Hannah Rainforth, illustrated by Ali Teo and Astrid Jensen

Oh Hogwash, Sweet Pea! is a quirky book about a fun little girl who is always losing her shoes and coming up with fantastical explanations for why they have gone missing.

Oh hogwash sweet pea


Here are some clips of the book being read:

The e-book preview:


A little girl reading a book about someone who looks a bit like her:



3. Jessica’s Box

by Peter Carnavas

Jessica’s Box is a touching, straightforward story of a little girl figuring out how to make friends at a new school, and persevering through the ups and downs of that.

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Jessica also happens to use a wheelchair, a fact which is clear from the pictures but never mentioned.

Here’s someone reading the book:

4. Have you seen Elephant?

by David Barrow

In this utterly charming story, a little child is playing hide and seek with Elephant – and the big pachyderm is surprisingly good at the game!

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I’m a bit disappointed that the elephant is male and the child (probably) is too. Couldn’t we at least have one of the two main characters be a female one?

On the plus side, though, it is set in a mixed-race family, and the little boy is a dark-skinned person of colour. The first pages have a wall of family photos showing the heritage.

And this book really is delightful!

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5. A Summery Saturday Morning

by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Selina Young

Another lovely read-aloud rhymer, Margaret Mahy’s A Summery Saturday Morning has been a favourite in our house since my parents gave it to my son four years ago when he was one.

Fabulous Children's Picture Books with Diverse Characters | Sacraparental.com

A bunch of kids with different skin tones walk to the beach with an adult and two dogs. It has some great rhythms. It’s a collective, chanty kind of book, all told from a ‘we’ perspective, nobody named or singled out.

Margaret Mahy is the towering giant of New Zealand children’s writing, and this sure looks like New Zealand to me, but it could be lots of places. Here’s a Scottish-accented reading of it:

6. Hush! A Thai Lullaby

by Minfong Ho, illustrated by Holly Meade

Minfong Ho was born in Myanmar to parents of Chinese descent, and grew up in Myanmar and Thailand before moving to the United States.

Hush: a Thai Lullaby, illustrated by Holly Meade, is the only one we have, bought by our flatmate Adrianna in Thailand, but I’m keen to seek out more, having read this fascinating bio at Wikipedia.



Our best Thai friend, who is Karen (an ethnic minority of both Thailand and Myanmar) says her home was just like these illustrations, growing up in rural Thailand.

The story can be a lovely soothing lullaby, a glimpse of rural Thai life, or a playful search for where the baby has managed to sneak off to in each picture.


7. I am so brave

by Stephen Krensky, illustrated by Sara Gillingham

My sister gave this to my little one, and it is fab.

I Am So Brave features a little person comparing what he used to be scared of to what he can do now.

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The publisher’s blurb sums it up well:

This fourth book in the empowerment series celebrates the feats of growing out of toddlerhood with courage and success. Whether it’s petting a dog or waving good-bye to a parent, Krensky and Gillingham address the “small wins” of growing just a little bit braver. Young children and their parents will revel in the encouraging text and the vintage screen-print-style illustrations.

(For more on aspiring to be ‘brave’, you might like to read my post on our family values.)

I haven’t read the other titles in the series, but they are by the same team, and look great:

Now I am big!

I know a lot!

I can do it myself!

8. Counting in the South Pacific

by Jill Jaques, illustrated by Deborah Hinde

In Counting in the South Pacific, kids can practise counting everyday things from shells to fingers, and see ordinary daily scenes of life in a South Pacific community.

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Author Jill Jaques is a former early childhood teacher currently living in Fiji. She wants to provide more books representing Pacific people, and this is her first publication.

The book is in English, in rhyming couplets, and the back page has a translation table of how to say numbers in four Pacific languages (Māori, Samoan, Tongan and Fijian).

counting south pacific

9. Anna Hibiscus: Splash!

by Atinuke, illustrated by Lauren Tobia

Our very favourite junior chapter books are the Anna Hibiscus stories about a charismatic five-year-old’s domestic adventures in middle-class African society.

They are set in ‘Amazing Africa’, with the location left deliberately unspecified, but they are written by Atinuke who grew up in Nigeria.

In this picture book, read aloud in the video above, we see Anna and her large family at the beach having a good time.

It’s not clear in this book, but Anna’s father (and his large family, who they all live with) is black and her mother is of mixed race heritage, First Nations and European Canadian.


Fabulous Children's Picture Books with Diverse Characters | Sacraparental.com


Do check out the chapter books if you have a slightly older child in your house. We read the entire series when my son was four, and I think he’d like to go round it again before long!

Here’s a lovely review of the series from The Artful Parent.

10. A is for Activist

by Innosanto Nagara

A is for Activist is an alphabet book with big ideas and big words for kids and adults.

Written and illustrated by Indonesian-American change-maker Innosanto Nagara, it features all kinds of people (and the odd animal) and is well worth getting your hands on.

a is for activist p and q pages


And you can read Lucy’s detailed review with great pics of the pages here.


Innosanto Nagara , author of two children's books he says is "for the next generation of progressives" that introduce young readers to concepts including activism, environmental justice and civil rights, is photographed at his workplace, Design Action Collective in Oakland, Calif., on Monday, Nov. 16, 2015. Nagara works at the Design Action Collective a community of artists creating graphic designs and communications for progressive, non-profit and social change organizations. (Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group)

Innosanto Nagara , author of two children’s books he says is “for the next generation of progressives” that introduce young readers to concepts including activism, environmental justice and civil rights, is photographed at his workplace, Design Action Collective in Oakland, Calif., on Monday, Nov. 16, 2015. Nagara works at the Design Action Collective a community of artists creating graphic designs and communications for progressive, non-profit and social change organizations. (Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group).

Fabulous Children's Picture Books with Diverse Characters | Sacraparental.com

11. Airport

by Byron Barton

Airport arrived in a package from my friend Cate just recently. This is a great, functional book, like Roadworks, about every aspect of passenger flight, from arriving at the airport, to taking off.

It is full of all sorts of people. For example, in the cockpit there are three pilots: one white man, one black man and one white woman. There are women and people of colour in every kind of role, just in a matter of fact way.


Fabulous Children's Picture Books with Diverse Characters | Sacraparental.com


Given that there are more wheelchairs at airports than any other public place (lots of people who don’t rely on them daily use them to get around large airports), I was surprised there weren’t any in the illustrations, but every other kind of physical representation is present. There are babies and elderly folks, people of different ethnicities, men, women, and even someone in a cowboy hat.


Fabulous Children's Picture Books with Diverse Characters | Sacraparental.com

Want more?

I have a Pinterest board to go with this post: Books for Children with Progressive Messages.

You can also check out the Guardian’s list of 50 wonderful diverse picture books.

The What We Do All Day website also has tons of great book lists, including Books about children with special needs and 21 picture books with diverse characters. Follow her links for more lists.

A Mighty Girl also has a billion book lists that are worth looking through.

And you might like to join two great Facebook groups: Books for our Daughters and Thoughtful Boys.

If you’re also concerned about representation on kids’ television programming, you might also like to check out my post on great shows that pass The Maisy Test and have a range of characters, plus good social values (and won’t drive you up the wall).

13 Children's TV shows that pass the Maisy Test for Sexism

Please consider this a warm invitation to follow me on Facebook for daily links, resources and Sacraparentalish tidbits, on Pinterest for link-plantations (including these Gender Politics and Change the World boards) and on Twitter for a range of ranting.

And some related posts you might be interested in:

The original post introducing The Maisy Test

‘Colours are for everyone’ + 38 more handy phrases for feminist parenting

13 TV shows with strong female leads (for adults)

My feminist parenting humiliation (for laughs)


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12 comments on “Fabulous Children’s Picture Books with Diverse Representation”

  1. Jess Reply

    Great list! We’ve got a few of these (Roadwork et al are firm favourites!) I love 10 little fingers and 10 little toes by Mem Fox.

  2. Spaghetti Reply

    What a great list, I’m always on the hunt for great gift ideas for kids 🙂 It’s a shame Phoebe and the Hot Water Bottles is out of print, she may be Caucasian but she has an elderly father, no mother and there’s a real mix of cultures in some of the other illustrations, not to mention her bravery and quick thinking. (And I’ve just noticed she looks remarkably like a young Lullastic)

  3. Amber Reply

    We have just had Have You Seen Elephant from the library, very cute. I love The Snowy Day by Jack Ezra Keats, Watercress Tuna and the Children of Champion St and for early readers by themselves we have several of the Betsey Biggalow books by Malorie Blackman. They are set in Trinidad I think. Wait until you try and find chapter books with diverse characters! Oddly the Disney Fairies scored well here and the blimmin awful Rainbow fairies have about one ethnically diverse fairy in 10, but given there are 200 books in the series its better than it sounds. When you find books like Malorie Blackmans I suggest buying a couple to donate to the school library as they are often restricted to what they can get in the Scholastic book Club.

    • thaliakr Reply

      Great advice!

      We’ve just started chapter books here, and agree it is slim pickings!

      I can highly recommend:
      the Anna Hibiscus chapter books by Atinuke
      the Mango and Bambang books by Polly Faber
      the Young Precious Ramotswe books by Alexander McCall Smith

      Love Watercress Tuna – great addition! And the Kuia and the Spider, also by Patricia Grace.

  4. Christina Reply

    We really enjoyed “The Mirror” by Jeannie Baker, it has beautiful illustrations that are textured collages. It features a day in the life of a boy in Australia and a boy in Morocco. A great source of representative books is barefootbooks.com . They specialise in books that represent diverse cultures, and families (even books for mixed race adoptive families like mine!). Alas they only do picture books.

  5. thaliakr Reply

    A great new addition to the list:
    I bought this FABULOUS book from Trade Aid Palmerston North​ last week and both kids love it: JULIANA’s BANANAS, by Ruth Walton.
    It’s that rare thing: a lovely picture book, with lots to interest children of all ages, that introduces us to a world unfamiliar to most of us, and tells us how our actions affect the people there.
    Fantastic as just a fun picture book, but also so easily spins off to other things, like:
    – there are banana recipes that the kids were desperate to make (successfully, too!)
    – we learned about how to ripen bananas faster with ethylene emitted from other fruit and tried it out
    – we looked up the botanical information on the banana plant
    – we talked about other endangered species we knew of (the Cavendish banana plant is endangered)
    – there’s a hurricane in the story, so we talked about civil defence things
    – J was fascinated that the people in the story look like they’re from Africa, but the map shows the Windward Islands being near South America. A discussion on the slave trade is going to follow.
    – We could also talk about colonisation based on the maps and info in the book (some of the Windward Islands are described as being ‘part of France’)
    – Fairtrade is a well-known concept in our house, but it’s unpacked here in a lot more detail than J was familiar with. Now whenever we see a fairtrade label, we remind each other of the kinds of things families like Juliana’s get from being part of fairtrade.
    – He also asks me to read all the headings on the Contents page each time.
    – And more!
    The key characters are a family of banana farmers: Juliana and her children Bertha and Billy. So there’s great gender stuff here, too.

  6. Jill JAQUES Reply

    You may like to list my 2nd Book . Reading in the South Pacific also depicting a South Pacific theme to match Counting in the South Pacific. I appreciate your support. Kind Regards, Jill Jaques

  7. Saskia Reply

    Thank you! Happy in our skin is also a great rhyming book featuring all sorts of people.

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