Losing yourself in a book is one of life’s greatest pleasures and encouraging this love of reading from an early age is hands down one of the biggest gifts you can give your child. Reading sparks imagination, encourages empathy and helps children understand the world around them, but what happens when the world they see in books looks nothing like the world they live in?
It’s no secret that children’s books have a serious issue when it comes to a lack of diversity, with just five per cent of children’s books published in the UK in 2019 featuring a main character who was black, asian or minority ethic – completely at odds with the 33.5 per cent of UK primary school children from a BAME background.
But the importance of representation cannot be stressed enough. “Books play an important role in shaping children’s lives,” explains Jill Coleman, director of children’s books at BookTrust. “These stories and characters will affect how they see themselves and the world around them, their motivation to read and their aspirations to become authors and illustrators of the future.”
Thankfully, filling your child’s bookshelf with literature that celebrates the whole spectrum of life is slowly getting easier, with publishers and authors embracing a more realistic representation of the world, whether that’s reflecting racial diversity, normalising disabilities, including all sexualities or challenging gender stereotypes.
From cute picture books for toddlers up to reading books for pre-teens, we’ve found the best books that help shape your children’s understanding of the world by celebrating diversity in all its forms.
You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps us to fund journalism across The Independent.
‘Baby Goes To Market’ by Atinuke and illustrated by Angela Brooksbank, published by Walker Books
In this fun, read-aloud board book, we join baby and mama as they explore a busy Nigerian market. Author Atinuke, who was born and grew up in Nigeria, draws on her African cultural experiences to create this timeless tale that was a huge hit with both our big and little testers.
A charming introduction to simple counting, Baby Goes To Market is a real treat, with the colourful illustrations evoking the mouth-watering food, hustle and bustle and bright African-print fabrics of the market – there’s plenty for little ones to engage with visually here – and the rhythmic language and humour toddlers and pre-schoolers love.
Buy now £6.99, Waterstones.com
‘Who Do I See In The Mirror?’ by Vese Aghoghovbia Aladewolu, published by Philly & Belle Publishing
After struggling to find black children featured in books when she was younger, Vese Aghoghovbia Aladewolu was determined that wouldn’t happen for her toddler daughter, so decided to write her own story as a gift for Philly. This sweet tale follows Philly as she realises how special she is, celebrating her curly hair and brown skin, but most of all her “good heart and curious mind”. The beautiful illustrations are bold and colourful – perfect for capturing a toddler’s attention – and, as a sweet touch, there’s a cut-out-and-keep certificate at the back for your child, declaring them “the most special and unique child ever!”
Buy now £10.00, Phillyandfriends.com
‘My Mummy’s a Firefighter’ by Kerrine and Jason Bryan, published by Butterfly Books
Part of a series of career-themed picture books aiming to break down out-dated gender stereotypes, My Mummy Is A Firefighter is a fantastic book for showing children that all kinds of professions are available and accessible to anyone, regardless of your gender, race or background. This story is told in easy to understand rhyme, with vibrant illustrations bringing her words to life perfectly. Aimed at children between three and seven years, the series focuses on STEM careers and includes other titles like My Mummy Is A Scientist and My Daddy Is A Nurse.
Buy now £6.99, Notonlypinkandblue.com
‘Lovely’ by Jess Hong, published by Creston Books
“What is lovely? Lovely is different,” declares this visual tale, championing people from all walks of life. Jess Hong beautifully depicts an incredible cast of characters, including a freckly, red-head with braces, a tattooed and heavily pierced granny, a brown-skinned crossdresser and a sportsman with an artificial leg. It conveys a powerful message that you don’t have to look a certain way or be a certain way to be “lovely”, it’s being uniquely you, in all your glory, that makes you amazing. It’s a good book to read aloud to your toddler or pre-schooler – they will love the pictures – but with simple enough language for early years school kids to attempt themselves.
Buy now £10.70, Blackwells.co.uk
‘Pablo’s Feelings’ created by Gráinne McGuinness and written by Sumita Majumdar and Andrew Brenner, published by Ladybird Books
Inspired by the hit CBeebies show about an autistic boy named Pablo, this book explores how he sees the world in different ways to other people. In Pablo’s Feelings, the title character realises that the expressions on his face don’t always match how he is feeling inside, so with the help of “The Book Animals” – the friends he likes to draw in his stories to help understand the world – he learns how he can tell others how he feels, without words or facial expressions. It’s a thoughtful, easy-to-grasp way to help your child understand that not everyone thinks and acts in the same way.
Buy now £6.99, Whsmith.co.uk
‘Me, My Dad And The End Of The Rainbow’ by Benjamin Dean, published by Simon & Schuster Ltd.
Perfect for readers aged nine and above, this is a joyous debut by celebrity journalist Benjamin Dean. Written with such heart, it tells the story of a boy named Archie Albright as he tries to get his head around his parents’s separation and his dad coming out. It’s a very special book that manages to touch on difficult subjects with gentleness. A truly a life-affirming read that will help to open up conversations with your child about LGBTQ+ issues.
Buy now £5.99, Waterstones.com
‘I Am Not A Label’ by Cerrie Burnell, published by Quarto
Former CBeebies presenter, Cerrie Burnell, is passionate about increasing the visibility of disabled people through her work as a writer, actor and presenter. Her latest book I Am Not A Label goes a long way in breaking down the stigma surrounding disabilities.
This stylish biography anthology profiles 34 artists, athletes, thinkers and activists with disabilities, from past and present. Featuring figures as diverse as Frida Kahlo and Peter Dinklage (from Game of Thrones fame), Cerrie celebrates how they overcame obstacles in their life and owned their differences, in this uplifting, stunningly illustrated read. Including a section on hidden disabilities as well as a glossary of terms to help explain some of the conditions covered in the book, this is a powerful tool in helping to educate children on disability.
Buy now £10.99, Amazon.co.uk
‘How Frank Helped Hank’ by Suzanne Hemming, published by Thea Chops Books
Frank’s Dad, Hank, is constantly telling his son to “man up” and “boys don’t cry”, but Frank can’t understand why. After talking to his clever friend Flo, who declares, “Boys shouldn’t cry?! Says who?! That doesn’t sound healthy to me!”, Frank begins to realise his dad only has such outdated views because they were passed on to him from his parents – and Frank decides it’s time his dad finally lets it all out.
Tackling the issue of toxic masculinity in an accessible way, Suzanne Hemming hopes her story is an important reminder “to our sons and daughters, that it’s ok not to be ok and that talking about it is the first step to feeling better.”
Buy now £7.99, Theachopsbooks.com
‘Julian Is A Mermaid’ by Jessica Love, published by Walker Books
Step into Julian’s world in this glorious picture book celebrating self-confidence, identity and individuality. This celebratory picture-book relies less on words (there are only a handful of written sentences in the book) and more on the dreamy illustrations to help tell the story of Julian and his vivid imagination, letting the reader create their own narrative as they go. A tender lesson in self-love and dismantling gender stereotypes.
Buy now £6.55, Whsmith.co.uk
‘Buster Finds His Beat’ by Pamela Aculey, published by Just Like Me Books
Written by Pamela Aculey, to offer some representation in picture books for her autistic, bi-racial son, Buster Finds His Beat helps encourage empathy and understanding, by championing inclusion and diversity. In this easy-to-follow story, we meet Buster, a six-year-old boy who is autistic and has sensory processing disorder (SPD).
Our Early Years readers in particular loved the cool, comic book-style illustrations and the message was delivered simply enough to help open up conversations about the autism spectrum. A great book for encouraging empathy and understanding by championing inclusion and diversity.
Buy now £9.99, Notonlypinkandblue.com
The verdict: Kids’ books that celebrate diversity
With its rainbow-bright illustrations, sweet humour and rhythmic verse, Baby Goes To Market is a guaranteed hit with toddlers and pre-schoolers. For older children, the unforgettable Me, My Dad And The End Of The Rainbow is a life-affirming, must-read.
Why not make your little one the centre of their very own story with these personalised children’s books