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Representation of All Children in Early Chapter Books

by Susan Dougherty, NJLA Board Member

Early chapter books hold a special place in the literacy lives of young readers. Every 1st and 2nd grade teacher knows the great pride a child feels when they are able to read “a chapter book.” Many readers have fond memories of reading Frog & Toad, Henry & Mudge, or Little Bear books in those early grades. And, yet, the body of well-known early chapter books suffers from a problem that has long plagued children’s literature. The characters in these well-known books are largely white children or anthropomorphic animals. As shown in this infographic from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, even new books published in 2018 overwhelmingly feature white or animal main characters.

As Rudine Sims Bishop (1990) told us decades ago, books can serve as windows, mirrors, and sliding doors if they represent us and show us the lives of others. For a very long time, early chapter books featured exclusively the lives of white children and, thus, for the growing numbers of children from non-white groups, rarely served as mirrors, and for white children, rarely served as windows. In addition, as books began to feature non-white characters, they were often written by white authors, sometimes resulting in distorted depictions of the lives of children of diverse backgrounds, as represented in the cracked mirrors shown above.

We may have reached an important juncture, however. A number of new early readers series have been introduced that have been written by authors of diverse backgrounds and feature children from these same backgrounds. I share some of my favorites below.

Ty’s Travels

In 2020, HarperCollins Publishers released the first I Can Read! series that features a Black family. Author Kelly Starling Lyons, a founding member of the Brown Bookshelf, and illustrator Nina Mata introduce us to Ty in the Ty’s Travels series. In Zip! Zoom!, winner of a Geisel honor medal, Ty learns to ride a scooter after a shaky start. In All Aboard!, Ty and his family turn a cardboard box into a train and spend time playing together after a busy day of work. This series, rated as a guided reading level I is a wonderful addition to the 1st grade collection of early readers.