top of page

Diverse Literature in the Classroom

Updated: 21 hours ago

The Importance of Fostering a Positive Self-Image in Young African American Males Through Literature and Imagery

Original publication date: June 2018

diverse literature in the classroom

“Knowing more about the cultural background of the children you teach serves as the starting point for creating a learning environment that supports multiple opportunities for more children to do what they do and know best.”

Debra Sullivan, Cultivating the Genius of Black Children

Children’s literature offers a place of fantasy and wonder. The images are of people, places and adventures that stir curiosity and endless possibilities. Children imagine being the hero, displaying autonomy that builds a positive self-image, one of the foundations of school readiness. However, imagine being a child in a world of books where the main character does not consistently look like you. What does this mean for young children? When children do not receive a healthy dose of literature that represents them, the lesson may be one of insignificance and unimportance in their community or in society.

According to the 2015 publishing statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, about 14 percent of children’s books depicted characters from diverse backgrounds. However, for African Americans the percentage is 7.6 percent, significantly lower than for books depicting animals, trucks, etc. at 12.5 percent, while 73.3 percent represent white children. Imagine not being consistently seen in the children’s books that are part of your entire childhood experience.

As an early education professional and parent of an African American son and daughter, I found these statistics both surprising and alarming. Never did I realize that the numbers of books for children of color were totally unimpressive. How did I miss this? I pride myself on being abreast of the most recent research in early education. Education is my passion. Despite having been in this field for over 20 years, I did not realize the low representation of books for children of color.

After learning of the lack of diverse literature in the classroom, I felt compelled to research how this impacts children of color. Stephen M. Quintana’s research, “Racial and Ethnic Identity,” published in 2007’s Journal of Publishing Psychology, provided some insight. Quintana’s research discussed how young children’s racial identity occurs. Similarly to Erik Erikson’s developmental levels, Quintana’s developmental levels are also aligned by age. After noticing a correlation, I serendipitously discovered an alignment.

The Importance of Fostering a Positive Self-image

In the 1940s, psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted a series of experiments designed to study the psychological effects of segregation on African American children. This series of experiments was known as “the doll test.” In the test, children three to seven years old were shown dolls, identical except for color; one was white and one was black. The children were asked to identify the race of the doll and which doll they preferred.

Other questions included:

  • “Show me the doll that you like best or that you would like to play with.”

  • “Show me the doll that is the nice doll.”

  • “Show me the doll that looks bad.”

  • “Give me the doll that looks like a colored child.”

  • “Give me the doll that looks like a white child.”

  • “Give me the doll that looks like you.”

The study revealed that the majority of the children preferred the white doll and attributed positive attributes to it. Dr. Clark stated, “This experience was disturbing because some children would refuse to answer the questions and would cry and run out of the room.” How could children as young as three years old see themselves as inferior?

I am a product of this era because I lived it. I remember my parents having a debate about the results of the doll test and the importance of my sister and I having dolls that looked like us. The results of the study were ground- breaking and later used in the Brown vs The Board of Education of Topeka case, which asserted that racial segregation in public educational facilities was unconstitutional.

Margaret B. Spencer, renowned child psychologist, University of Chicago professor and a leading researcher in the field of child development, recreated the test in 2010. As a result, Spencer concluded, “We are still living in a society where dark things are devalued and white things are valued.” It goes without saying that America’s public schools are no longer segregated, however, providing more diverse literature for young children seems to lag behind historical accomplishments.

psychosocial stages and racial identity development

Why Young African American Males?

Although there are not sufficient children’s books featuring children of color, I intentionally discuss African American boys. Last year an educational event steered my focus to boys. I attended an early education conference and the keynote speaker was Walter Gilliam, who spoke about his study on implicit bias. Research results found that African American children make up only 19 percent of preschool enrollment, but comprise of 47 percent of preschool expulsions. Boys are expelled at a higher rate than girls however African American boys are expelled at disproportionately higher rates. (Gilliam, 2005).

This is a conversation that has occurred in the African American community for decades. Having research that supports this reality is healing. “More is known about the problems than the positive development of African American boys. And this biased information leads many professionals to conclude that the boys are “at risk” and that they have many deficits to overcome in their learning and development. (Supporting the School Readiness and Success of the Young African American Boy Project: Reflections on a Cultural Responsive Strength Based Approach, 2015).

Diverse Literature and Imagery in the Classroom

The first time I conducted a workshop on this topic, I opened the floor for questions and comments. A participant raised her hand and stated, “This doesn’t apply to my program because all of my children are white.” Another participant chimed in, “Well, don’t you want the children in your program to see the differences and similarities in all children? Isn’t it important to know that black boys can be heroes too?” I would add that this applies to adults as well. The adults who are a part of a young African American child’s world must see and acknowledge their brilliance.

In an article titled “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors,” Rudine Sims Bishop (1990) wrote:

windows mirrors and sliding glass door books

“Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of what- ever world has been created or recreated by the author....Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.”

The early childhood classroom should reflect the ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity of our community and country. NAEYC’s recommendation for a responsive learning environment states, “Early childhood educators should stop and reflect on the best ways to ensure appropriate educational and developmental experiences for all young children.”

When selecting literature for children, intentionality is key. Whether the books accompany a curriculum or supplement a theme, they should be developmentally appropriate, appealing, and relevant. Providing mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors, books are an additional component to inclusivity. Placing books throughout multiple learning spaces creates consistent positive self imagery opportunities. Books featuring African American children need not just appear during Black History month or on Dr. King’s birthday. Being African American occurs every day and all the time.

OHS National Center on Cultural & Linguistic Responsiveness offers a guide- line when selecting books for young African American males. The guide shares how to gauge the content’s appropriateness and what to look for in the illustrations. Such as A Beach Tail (2010) by Karen L. Williams, where Gregory and his father spend a day at the beach, or Do Not Bring a Dragon to the Library (2016) by Julie Gassman about a little boy who wants to bring his dragon to the library to enjoy books like everyone else. Books also serve as a bridge between school and families. When African American families see themselves in the books that children bring home, respect and partnerships emerge. Sharing books that illustrate everyday occurrences such as, I Love My Hair! (2001) by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley, serves as a sliding glass door that shares an experience that all children have. Books like Before there was Mozart: The Story of Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George (2011) by Lesa Cline-Ransome or When the Beat was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop (2013) by Laban Carrick Hill contain rich historical content.

The Future in Diverse Literature for African American Boys

Multiple conversations and campaigns have emerged, aimed at shining a spotlight on the disparities that African American males face. They include awareness that African American first through fourth graders experience higher comprehension and recall with books describing African American themes. Research suggests that multicultural books should comprise at least 40 percent of books available and accessible for children in all learning environments.

Additionally, there is increased acknowledgement of the disproportionate expulsion and suspension of young African American males, and many states have developed policies to address this issue. We Dream A World: The 2025 Vision for Black Men and Boys campaign examines and seeks to shape a new future. The efforts need to be augmented with more professional development workshops in the early childhood education field that are created to open an honest dialogue that benefits teachers, families and children’s future.


Bell, Y.R., & Clark, T.T. (1998). “Cultur- ally relevant reading material as related to comprehension and recall in African American children.” Journal of Black Psychology, 24, 455-475.

Bishop, R.S. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives, 6(3), ix–xi.

Brown at 60: The Doll Test Retrieved from at-60-the-doll-test

Cabrera (2013). Supporting the School Readiness and Success of the Young African American Boy Project: Reflections on a Cultural Responsive Strength Based Approach. Retrieved from default/files/pdf/young-african-amer- ican-boys-projectguide.pdf

Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of edu/books/pcstats.asp

Gilliam, W.S. (2005). Do Early Educa- tors’ Implicit Biases Regarding Sex and Race Relate to Behavior Expectations and Recommendations of Preschool Expul- sions and Suspensions? New Haven, CT: Yale University Children Study Center. Retrieved form http://ziglercenter. Implicit%20Bias%20Policy%20Brief_fin al_9_26_276766_5379_v1.pdf

Responding to Linguistic and Cultural Diversity Recommendations for Effec- tive Early Childhood Education: A position statement of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. (Adopted November 1995).

Retrieved from https://www.naeyc. org/sites/default/files/globally- shared/downloads/PDFs/resources/ positionstatements/PSDIV98.PDF

Quintana, S.M., (2007). Racial and Ethnic Identity: Developmental Perspectives and Research. Journal of Counseling Psychology. Vol . 54, No. 3, 259-270.

Sullivan, Debra Ren. (2016). Cultivating the genius of black children: Strategies to close the gap in the early years. St Paul: Redleaf Press.

My Brother’s Keeper Task Force (2015). Retrieved from https://obamawhite- keeper#section-recent-events

Tsoi-A-Fatt, R (2010). We dream a world: The 2025 vision for black men and boys. Retrieved from we-dream-world-2025-vision-black- men-and-boys


The research information provided above aided in the creation of a professional development training available to provide educators with guidance in improving literacy rates and expanding classroom libraries. This training is available for educators in the form of Group Bookings (In-Person or Virtual) and via Self-Study Online Programs.

See below for more details

culturally responsive literature training

"Story Voices: The Importance of Selecting Culturally Responsive Literature for All Children"



bottom of page