Highlighting Commonalities, Differences, and Diversity with Picture Books


Carol Sue Marshall

The kindergarten day had begun. Children were settling into a time of free choice and the teacher was siting on the floor next to Manuel talking about events of the weekend. Mason came running toward the teacher declaring, “Jacobe pulled my hair and said I have to leave the block area cuz no girls are allowed in there.” As the teacher helped Mason and Jacobe examine their conflict, she felt a tug on her leg. “Gretchen says I can’t play at the water table with her cuz my skin is dirty. My skin’s not dirty, is it?” asked Kenya. “NO!” Magda screamed at Tamera. “You CAN’T be on our team. You always fall down and make us lose!” And so it goes with young children.


To what extent do young children notice differences among themselves? Louise Derman-Sparks suggests that just as young children learn to sort colored tiles, match animals to habitats, and categorize things that sink and float, children naturally notice and categorize differences among people.1 Babies are able to distinguish mother’s voice and to detect strangers. Likewise, children have little difficulty turning up a nose at spinach while begging for candy. Why shouldn’t it seem just as natural for a child to respond to Mason’s being a girl, Kenya’s skin appearing darker than that of other children, or Tamera’s physical awkwardness? Our interest as teachers should not be in whether children do respond to such differences, but rather in assisting them in knowing how to respond in kind and respectful ways.

It is important for children to talk about what is going on in their lives. I call special times for doing this in class “community times.” Talking allows children to express their feelings and to recognize that other children have troubles, too. Another value lies in the presence of an adult listener, who can offer support to an individual child while helping all children to overcome the stereotypes they may hold about their classmates.

Children’s books provide another vehicle for helping students to discuss important issues in their lives. Sharing simple stories can help children recognize how much they have in common, while also interesting them in the diverse ways people meet common needs. Knowing that picture books may “provide a lens for viewing new perspectives that lead to changed attitudes and dispositions,”2 a teacher can take good advantage of them to open minds and heal divisions among students in a class.

In spite of the increasing emphasis on multicultural education, there are teachers who remain uncomfortable talking with children about issues of diversity. Some adults may believe that discussing differences with children actually promotes negative attitudes, while others find such discussions difficult because of the deeply rooted stereotypes they themselves hold.3 Teachers may be unaware of the ways in which they nourish misinterpretations and inaccurate concepts about people unlike themselves, thus unintentionally perpetuating societal stereotypes and sustaining the status quo. Such behaviors, sometimes referred to as “hidden curriculum,” are both common to and detrimental in classrooms. Being prepared to talk comfortably and appropriately with children about human diversity is a critical teacher proficiency.

Programs that lift the unique attributes of each child to a level of celebration are led by adults who create anti-bias environments that respect individual differences and encourage communication about the myriad of human characteristics that exist. Programs that affirm the worth of every child, regardless of background, are led by teachers who read stories about children who are both like and diffferent from the children in the class, and who are able to bring a variety of circumstances (both pleasant and unpleasant) into meaningful discussions.

Derman-Sparks suggests that curriculum goals that promote anti-bias attitudes should begin by enabling “every child to construct a knowledgeable, confident self-identity,” followed by opportunities to “develop comfortable, empathetic, and just interaction with diversity.”4 There is no simple recipe for meeting either of those goals; however, children’s picture books can create bridges that allow children to travel from their common and comfortable assumptions into less familiar ideas and divergent perspectives. Purposefully chosen picture books can break the cycle of stereotypes and provide a springboard for helping children develop dispositions toward a lifetime of respect, openness, and continuous discoveries.


Using Children’s Picture Books to Promote Respect for Self and Others

This article suggests three possible strategies for using picture books to support discussions about differences while encouraging respect for human diversity:

> using books to highlight commonalities

> using books to highlight individual differences

> using books to highlight diversity


Using Books to Highlight Commonalities

It is important for children to become aware of their common traits, their likenesses, their humanness. Recognizing that characters in picture books resemble the children themselves raises appreciation for the many characteristics children share. Children enjoy the beautifully illustrated Rain Talk, hearing and feeling the soft drops of spring rain as they ping on the tin roof and plip plip on the surface of a pond. It is incidental to the story that the little girl enjoying a free spirited romp in the rain with her dog has dark skin and black hair and eyes.

Rain Talk is one of the many picture books that are simply about children–all children. Books such as All Kids Are Special and We Play on a Rainy Day also show various makes and models of children as they bounce along in their healthy, scary, short, freckled, grumpy, and silly ways. Kids poses questions such as, “What’s in a kid’s pocket?”, “What do kids dream of?”, and “What are kids’ secrets?” In doing so, it provides opportunities to identify ways children look and feel, things children like to do, and problems children might have just because they are children.

Childhood is characterized by unexplained and sometimes confusing emotions. Numerous picture books are designed to elicit discussions about the vast realm of feelings and emotions all children experience. By seeking out books such as Franklin in the Dark, A Cool Kid Like Me, and Molly’s Monsters, teachers can help children to examine and explain the common feelings they have, while also helping them to note the diversity of perspectives held by their peers.

Sam and What Mary Jo Shared are examples of books about children who have feelings of insecurity or rejection. The title characters in these books are trying to find their places within the family or among peers. Wanting to be noticed, both Sam and Mary Jo seek ways to get the attention they desire. Helping children to explore the emotions they are experiencing through a picture book character can lead children to higher levels of understanding, tolerance, and respect for themselves and others.


Using Books to Highlight Individual Differences

It is important for children to become aware of their unique traits, their differences, and their individuality. Much of a child’s success in school has to do with the way she feels about herself as she engages in different experiences.5 Influenced by the formal and informal behaviors of adults, children develop attitudes about themselves and their value to others. A child’s capacity to feel empathy and extend care to others hinges on the ability to care about one’s self. Often the very children who tease others and pick on the weak are lacking true respect for themselves.

Numerous books focus on human differences. The same book may lead one child to heightened awareness of the situations of others, while supporting another child who actually finds himself in circumstances similar to those of the story’s main character. For example, the main character in Oliver Button Is a Sissy is a young boy who likes to read, cut paper dolls, and play dress-up. Oliver’s father and the other children tease him and call him “Sissy” for practicing his dancing, until Oliver eventually performs in a talent show and gains everyone’s respect.

An increasing number of picture books depict families and children living in poverty. Being Poor is a simply written, beautifully illustrated representation of what it means to be a child living in poverty. Listening to this story, children learn that being poor means wearing shoes others have thrown away, having a scout troop bring a Christmas basket, and riding three buses to a clinic when you’re really sick. It behooves teachers to familiarize children of privilege with the adverse conditions of others, and to use such books to support children who find themselves living in situations represented in a story.

Apt. 3, Fly Away Home, Rockabye Rabbit, and Tight Times are additional examples of stories describing how some children get along without many of the things others take for granted. Fly Away Home is a moving story of the difficulties experienced by a young boy and his dad as they attempt to go unnoticed in order to secure their “home” in an airport. In Rockabye Rabbit, the reader is invited to share the love a homeless boy feels for his favorite toy, his mother, and the people who live with them under a bridge. Children unfamiliar with such situations come to a new understanding of the secret life of those who live in cardboard boxes, eat at food shelters, and hope for accommodations in a family home. A major value of both Fly Away Home and Rockabye Rabbit is that both present a child’s-eye view of the difficult challenges of homelessness. Reading and discussing such powerful books can encourage children to think critically about the needs of others—needs that may be either similar to or different from their own. Perhaps examining such topics will help children see that individual differences need not be deficiencies.


Using Books to Highlight Diversity

There are a number of skills to be learned about living peacefully with others. Teachers frequently find themselves leading discussions with young children about sharing, cooperating, adapting, or being a friend. Authors of children’s picture books naturally present storylines that support such discussions. For example, the title character in Stellaluna is a bat who, when separated from her mother, adapts to being a member of a bird family. She avoids hanging upside down so mother bird will not be scared and learns to eat bugs as baby birds do. When Stellaluna finds her bat family and begins to compare bats and birds, she wonders how they can be so different, yet feel so much alike. It is only a short journey from the reading of stories like Stellaluna to meaningful exploration of ways the children in your class cooperate and adapt to each other.

Gila Monsters Meet You at the Airport invites discussion about the hurtful existence of prejudice, or of pre-judging people and places before the facts are known. In this humorous story about stereotypes, one young boy’s beliefs about Westerners are contrasted with another boy’s perceptions about Easterners. Both portraits are riddled with nonsensical, stereotypical ideas that most children will recognize as foolish. Laughing at such silly beliefs opens the door for more serious discussions regarding the effects of pre-judging and misinterpreting each other’s words and behaviors.

Picture books such as Seven Blind Mice and No One Quite Like Me help children examine how opinions may be formed based only on what one can see. These books offer rich possibilities for generating critical thinking about the need to carefully explore all aspects of situations and consider more than outward appearances. Certainly, children of all backgrounds can benefit from considering the effects of choosing friends, for instance, based on the clothes a child wears or the color of his or her skin.

The ability to resolve conflict is a skill that requires much nurturing during the early years. Common children’s picture books, such as The Little Red Hen and Where the Wild Things Are, are ripe with opportunities to help children develop strategies for solving problems. Questions such as, “Is there a problem in this story?”, “What is the problem?”, and “How might we help the character solve the problem?” generate ideas that transfer into identifying real problems and choosing words and actions to solve them. Empowering children to solve conflicts appropriately is among the most important social skills teachers can help children develop. As with all other skills, children must begin to understand the process of conflict resolution from meaningful and familiar activities. Reading and discussing dilemmas found in children’s stories provides the perfect chance to help children think about cooperative ways to solve conflicts.

Children’s books serve as both mirrors and windows. As mirrors, they reflects children’s backgrounds, behaviors, and feelings. As windows, they enable children to look beyond their own circumstances into a world of new experiences.6 The early years are critical for developing attitudes and dispositions about both oneself and others.7 Children are dependent on adults for creating environments that respect individuality and celebrate differences. Teachers of young children must lead the way by demonstrating that personal uniqueness and human commonalities are not opposites, but rather companions on the road to reaching one’s full potential.

Children’s picture books and simple stories should be used in classrooms as a springboard for developing the dispositions that are necessary for building a peaceful world community. Books like those highlighted in this article can provide the foundation for creating attitudes and behaviors required for living peacefully together in a world tremendously rich in diversity.



1. Louise Derman-Sparks and the A.B.C. Task Force, Anti-Bias Curriculum: Tools for Empowering Young Children (Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1989).

2. Carol Sue Marshall, “Using Children’s Storybooks to Encourage Discussions,” Childhood Education 74 (1998): 194-199.

3. Persons in the first group appear to promote a theory of “color-blindness.” Believing that skin color is not significant, however, is a way of denying a unique and important part of a child’s identity. Adults in the latter group should be encouraged to examine the beliefs they hold and how those beliefs developed. Creating a timeline of personal life events leading to attitudes regarding a variety of differences, or contrasting personal beliefs about gender roles or civil rights, for example, with those of one’s immediate and extended family can be useful to that examination.

4. Derman-Sparks, ix.

5. Uri Bronfrenbrenner, The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1981).

6. M. Rudman and A. Pearce, For the Love of Reading: A Parent’s Guide to Encouraging Young Readers from Infancy Through Age 5 (Mount Vernon, N.Y.: Consumer Reports, 1988).

7. Sue Bredekamp, ed., Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children Birth Through Age 8 (Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1997).


Byrnes, D., and Kiger, G., Eds., Common Bonds. Wheaton, Md.: Association for Childhood Education International, 1996.

Jalongo, Mary. Young Children and Picture Books. Wheaton, Md.: Association for Childhood Education International, 1988.

Neugebauer, B. Alike and Different. Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Noddings, Nel. The Challenge to Care in Schools: An Alternative Approach to Education. New York: Teachers College Press, 1992.

Ramirez, Gonzalo and Jan Ramirez. Multiethnic Children’s Literature. Albany, N.Y.: Delmar, 1994.

Children’s Books

Anholt, Catherine and Laurence Anholt. Kids. Cambridge, Mass.: Candlewick Press, 1992.

Bourgeois, Paulett. Franklin in the Dark. New York: Scholastic Books, 1986.

Bunting, Eve. Fly Away Home. New York: Clarion Books, 1991.

Cannon, Janell. Stellaluna. New York: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1993.

dePaola, Tomie. Oliver Button Is a Sissy. New York: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1979.

Diestel-Feddersen, Mary and Lisa Herriman. No One Quite Like Me. Flinders Park, South Australia: Era Publications, 1993.

Hamilton, Kersten. Rockabye Rabbit. Boca Raton, Fla.: Cool Kids Press, 1995.

Hazen, Barbara. Tight Times. New York: Puffin Books, 1979.

Keats, Ezra. Apt. 3. New York: Aladdin Books, 1971.

Maguire, Arlene. All Kids Are Special. Santa Monica, Calif.: Portunus Publishing, 1995.

Medearis, Angela. We Play on a Rainy Day. New York: Scholastic, 1995.

Rosenberg, Janet. Being Poor. Minneapolis, Minn.: Carolrhoda Books, 1973.

Scott, Ann. Sam. New York: Putnam & Gosset Group, 1967.

Sendak, Maurice. Where the Wild Things Are. New York: Harper Collins, 1963.

Serfozo, Mary. Rain Talk. New York: Scholastic, 1990.

Sharmot, Marjorie. Gila Monsters Meet You at the Airport. New York: Aladdin Books, 1990.

Slater, Teddy. Molly’s Monsters. New York: Platt & Munk, 1988.

Udry, Janice. What Mary Jo Shared. New York: Scholastic Books, 1991.

Wilhelm, Hans. A Cool Kid Like Me. New York: Crown Publishers, 1990.

Young, Ed. Seven Blind Mice. New York: Scholastic Books, 1992.

Zemach, Margot. The Little Red Hen. New York: Harper Collins, 1983.

About the Author

Carol Sue Marshall is an assistant professor at The University of Texas at Arlington. She directs the Center for Professional Teacher Education and regularly works with preschool and primary grade children.

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.