In partnership with the 2022 Wisconsin Science Festival, Badger Talks presented a live talk by Dipesh Navsaria, MPH, MSLIS, MD, associate professor, Division of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, and clinical associate professor in the department of Human Development and Family Studies, on the importance of diversity in children’s books. Navsaria is a pediatrician and also an occasional children’s librarian who frequently uses both roles to promote childhood reading (he has been known to give prescriptions for reading to his young patients and their parents). In his engaging talk, “Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Glass Doors: Why Diversity in Children’s Books Matters to Us All,” Navsaria showed how characters in children’s books have—and historically have not—represented diverse ethnic and racial populations, and why it’s important for parents and teachers who select books to pay particular attention. He noted that UW–Madison’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center, which for decades has been documenting diversity statistics for books for children and teens, reported that in 2018 characters in children’s books were 50% white, 27% animals, 10% African/African American, 7% Asian Pacific Islander/Asian Pacific American, 5% Latino, and 1% American Indians.
Illustrations and text allow young readers to “see themselves,” and Navsaria stressed how important it is for parents, teachers, and others who select their books to keep that in mind. It’s essential, he noted, to go beyond the “Four Fs” in presenting diverse populations in books: Food, Fashion, Folklore, Festivals, and Famous People. These topics over-generalize and often don’t connect with readers in their daily lives. He offered himself as an example: he, a person of South Asian descent, was born in London and raised in Queens, New York. The fashions and festivals of India were not part of his life at all. Rather, it is important that young readers see themselves in the arc of stories, not only in ethnic foods or folklore, as they read.
Books featuring characters of color engaged in normal day-to-day activities allow young readers to identify with them and see themselves as belonging in society. Navsaria noted a few of these books. In one, the main character, a young Black boy, experiences a snowy day; in another, the story follows a young Black father helping his daughter manage her hair.
Navsaria explored these concepts in detail in his talk and offered clear and concrete guidance to adults selecting children’s books. The talk is available on the Badger Talks YouTube channel. In addition, Navsaria’s podcast, through Reach Out & Read, offers 60 episodes.
Notably, Navsaria was recently selected by President Joe Biden to be one of 11 new members to serve on the National Museum and Library Services Board.