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As a parent, I love books that create space for conversations with my kiddo. Sure, we talk a lot about cats (her favorite thing ever) and food (a close second), but there are other things I want to discuss with her. For me, books are a great way to jumpstart conversations — especially when it comes to cultural literacy.
Cultural literacy is important, and books can play a big role in helping young readers develop it. While exposure to and interaction with people from a wide array of cultural backgrounds is certainly also crucial for young people’s development, sometimes sitting down with a good book can provide an engaging point of entry.
The books I’m sharing with you today are all aimed at young readers. That means they’re all accessible to readers ages 8–12, although of course the reading level varies by the book (as it does by the reader). One thing I love about all of these books is the way they take social situations that may be hard for younger kids to understand and make them accessible.
Whether they’re exploring the dynamics of growing up trans, thinking through what it means to be a kid during the COVID pandemic, or grappling with political conversations about refugees, all of these books are fantastic conversation starters. If you, like me, are interested in using books to help talk to your young reader about the world, it might be a fun experiment to read some of these books to or with them. (But that’s just an idea, so take it with a grain of salt!)
I’ve divided the list into two parts: books that focus on current issues and books that center marginalized perspectives. The books in the first section all revolve around timely topics that feature prominently on the national or international stage in this moment of time. Alternately, the books in the second section are a little less defined by the specific moment and more about spending time with various world views that are underrepresented (or not represented at all) in the mainstream.
Books That Focus On Current Issues
The books in this section all revolve around timely topics that feature prominently on the national or international stage in this moment of time.
Mañanaland by Pam Muñoz Ryan
Zenobia July by Lisa Bunker
Rez Dogs by Joseph Bruchac
Santiago’s Road Home by Alexandra Diaz
The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Raúf
Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Books That Center Marginalized Perspectives
The books in this section are not necessarily defined by the specific moment (like some of the books above). Instead, they present opportunities to spend time with various world views that are underrepresented (or not represented at all) in the mainstream.
The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich
Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish by Pablo Cartaya
More to the Story by Hena Khan
Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park
Flor and Miranda Steal the Show by Jennifer Torres
Suggestions for Further Reading
This post on How to Pick Children’s Books About Gender has some great tips on how and why to select good books about gender. Relatedly, Report: 2019 Diversity in Children’s and YA Literature goes over some of the statistics regarding BIPOC writers, illustrators, and characters in literature for young readers that might inform how you select books that feature BIPOC characters or center on issues related to race. The two posts pair nicely to help the bigger picture around literary representation and diversity come into focus.