grandmother reading to child

by Marsha Rakestraw

Stories are a powerful tool.

They teach us about the world and ourselves; they influence our values; and they help shape our worldview.

With children’s books, we’re usually looking for a good story to share with our children. Less often are we paying much attention to the kinds of messages those stories impart, the subtle (or not so subtle) biases, or who or what may be missing. It’s important that we think as critically about children’s books as we do about other media.

Our allies at Teaching for Change have developed a guide to help parents, educators, and concerned citizens in choosing anti-bias children’s books (books that are free from racism, sexism, classism, and similar types of bias). (Note: The first such guide was created in 1980, by the Council on Interracial Books for Children. This new guide is an updated version.)

Here are the tips:

  1. Check the illustrations (for things like stereotypes, tokenism, and the invisibility of certain groups or kinds of people).
  2. Check the story line and the relationships between people. (How are power relationships handled? How are problems presented and resolved? Who needs help and who is in a leadership role? Who causes problems and who solves them?)
  3. Look at messages about different lifestyles (e.g., are there negative value judgments about lifestyles that differ from the dominant culture or class?).
  4. Consider the effects on children’s self and social identities (e.g., will children be able to find themselves represented in a positive and powerful light?).
  5. Look for books bout children and adults engaging in actions for change. (Do books show people from all sorts of situations and characteristics as able changemakers?)
  6. Consider the author’s or illustrator’s background & perspective. (Are they writing about something they know? Is their bias in their worldview?)
  7. Watch for loaded words. (Are words demeaning? Do they make certain people invisible?)
  8. Look at the copyright date. (Older books tend to reflect values of the time, which may not reflect current relevance or sensitivity.)
  9. Assess the quality and appeal of the book to young children. (Is the book age-appropriate and a good read?)

Read the complete post, which offers more detail about each tip.

In addition to investigating children’s books for bias and stereotypes regarding humans, consider how nonhuman animals and the earth are viewed and treated. Are they and their own needs and interests invisible? Are they framed so that they seem to welcome (or at least accept) being exploited and/or abused by humans? Is there active compassion, respect, and consideration for animals and the planet? What values are being promoted?

For some great children’s books on humane-related issues, check out the suggested titles in our Resource center.