Using inclusive books in the early years and key stage 1 - why, what and how?

Why are inclusive books important?

Young children - indeed all children - need and deserve books in which they can find themselves; books they can relate to; books that show them they are not alone; books that validate their experiences; books that build their sense of identity; books that help them feel they belong (so important in our world right now); books that help them understand themselves. Book collections that demonstrate and celebrate equality, diversity and inclusion support personal and emotional development. They build well-being, resilience and self-worth. They present children with role models and options.

Young children - indeed all children - also need and deserve books that broaden their horizons: books that introduce them to different ways of living; books with a diverse range of characters from a diverse range of backgrounds and with a diverse range of experiences; books that highlight our shared humanity. They need books that give them insight into other people's lives. Book collections that demonstrate and celebrate equality, diversity and inclusion also develop empathy, tolerance, respect and social cohesion. We all need books that challenge stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination, books that challenge our thinking, books that break down suspicions and fears of otherness.

Sadly, all too often the range of the books in classrooms, libraries and bookshops is not representative of the diversity of society. Take one example: even now a depressingly large majority of easily available children's books feature only white children - an issue that matters just as much in predominantly white communities as in areas of ethnic and cultural diversity. Another example: far more of the chief protagonists in easily available picture books are male than female. Inexplicably, even animal characters are mostly male. Girls need positive female role models, and they are important for boys' development too. Children's publishing has a long way to go on diversity and inclusion, but there are lots of wonderful books available. We need to get them. We need to promote them. We need to exploit them effectively.

The characteristics of good inclusive books

What does a good diverse book collection for young children look like? Above all it looks enticing and exciting. It is full of lovely books that children can't wait to read. There is no need for tokenism. Good inclusive books are great reads. A good inclusive picture book or early chapter book has rounded characters and an imaginative plot. The story and characters come first: the books are not issue-led. The characters and situations are ones today's young children can relate to. The protagonists are agents not victims. Good inclusive books, whether picture books, fiction or information books, are relevant to contemporary children. They have authentic pictures and text. They explore issues sensitively in both text and pictures. They inspire curiosity. They are free of stereotypes. They don't preach. They present positive images and provide a range of role models. Good inclusive books show diversity in a natural, incidental way. (Why is it that children so rarely see characters wearing glasses in their picture books, for example?) Good inclusive books raise questions and create opportunities for reflection and discussion.

Building a diverse book collection

A good diverse book collection will include lots of books with positive messages about gender, gender identity and gender roles. Let me name just a few that I am especially keen on: Ada Twist Scientist and Rosie and Revere Engineer by Andrea Beaty, Boys Don't Do Ballet and The Worst Princess by Anna Kemp, Not All Princesses Dress in Pink by Jane Yolen and Heidi Stemple, Super Daisy by Kes Gray, Alfie's Angels by Henriette Barkow (available in several dual language editions), Made by Raffi by Craig Pomranz, I'm a Girl by Yasmeen Ismail, It Could Be, You Could Be by Karen Owen and What are You Playing At? by Marie-Sabine Roger and Anne Sol. All of these challenge gender stereotypes. Importantly, all are interesting and highly enjoyable. 10,000 Dresses by Marcus Ewert is great for exploring trans-gender issues.

We need to make sure that children see all types of family composition in our book collections. Too many books still feature only stereotypical white middle class families with a mum and a dad and two children. The Great Big Book of Families by Mary Hoffman explores the ways lots of very different families go about things with great humour and compassion. Do look at We Are Family by Patricia Hegarty too. I particularly like Tilly's at Home Holiday by Gillian Hobbs. The New Small Person by Lauren Child is another favourite of mine. Welcome to the Family, also by Mary Hoffman, is delightful, with an extremely diverse range of families including foster families, adoptive families, mixed-race families, families with same-sex parents. Other good picture books with same-sex couples include Stella Brings the Family by Miriam B Schiffer, King and King by Linda De Haan and Heather has Two Mummies and Donovan's Big Day by Leslea Newman.

A good diverse book collection will of course have lots of picture books, fiction and information books that reflect the ethnic, cultural and religious diversity of our world in positive ways, as many of the books I've listed in other paragraphs do. This is a vast field, and it's impossible to list all of the fabulous books that are available in this short space, but here are a just a few of the picture books and chapter books that I particularly admire, some set in this country, some in other parts of the world. Both are important. I love Abdi's Day and A Visit to City Farm by Verna Wilkins for their authentic representation of the school experiences of contemporary city children. Take a look at One World One Day by Barbara Kerley, My World Your World by Melanie Walsh, Yokki and the Parno Gry by Richard O'Neill and Katharine Quarmby, Lulu Reads to Zeki (and the rest of the Lulu series), My Friend Amy and My Friend Jamal by Anna McQuinn, Anna Hibiscus and The No 1 Car Spotter by Atinuke, My Dad the Hero and Kasia's Surprise by Stella Gurney, The Swirling Hijab by Na'ima bint Robert, Last Stop on Market Street by Matt De La Peña, Immi by Karin Littlewood, To Market! To Market! by Anushka Ravishankar and What We Wear by M. Ajmera, E.H. Derstine and C. Pon. Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman deserves its classic status.

Books about refugees and migration are important both for those children who have experienced them, and for children whose lives have been more settled, so they can understand what it feels like to be uprooted, to come to a new country, to be surrounded by strangers. These books are all excellent: Ice in the Jungle by Ariane Hofman-Maniyar, Frog and the Stranger by Max Velthuijs, The Silence Seeker by Ben Morley, The New Kid by Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick, The Journey Home by Frann Preston-Gannon, The Colour of Home by Mary Hoffman and Beegu by Alexis Deacon. Don't forget Paddington by Michael Bond. For Year 2 and above I thoroughly recommend Journey by Francesca Sanna and Azzi in Between by Sarah Garland.

Books translated into English from other languages develop children's cultural understanding and empathy. A couple of examples: Mr Leon's Paris by Barroux, translated from French by Sarah Ardizzone is fabulous; I'm very impressed with When I Coloured in the World by Ahmadreza Ahmadi, translated from Persian by Azita Rassi. Dual language books can be very useful.

We Are All Born Free by Amnesty International is an important and special book: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in picture book format.

An inclusive book collection will include books with positive messages about additional needs, including learning disabilities. Here are just a few: Susan Laughs by Jeanne Willis, Just Because by Rebecca Elliott, Freddie and the Fairy by Julia Donaldson, Specs for Rex by Yasmeen Ismail, Isaac and His Amazing Asperger Superpowers by Melanie Walsh, Max the Champion by Sean Stockdale and Alexandra Strick and Quiet by Kate Alizadeh. The Great Big Body Book by Mary Hoffman is very inclusive. On the subject of additional needs, don't forget the importance of books that make text accessible for children for whom reading is hard. I'm a big fan of Barrington Stoke's Little Gems books. Do look at Off to the Park illustrated by Stephen Cheetham, a lovely, immensely accessible multi-sensory board book.

Children need books that help them understand their own and other people's emotions, that give them an insight into mental health issues and that help them deal with difficult situations. Some examples that I admire: Rabbityness by Jo Empson is great on loss; The Cloud by Hannah Cumming, The Colour Thief by Andrew Fusek Peters and Polly Peters, Black Dog by Levi Pinfold and Everybody Feels Sad! by Moira Butterfield are all very valuable. So are the other books in the Everybody Feels... series. And so is The Great Big Book of Feelings, yet another book by Mary Hoffman. The Girl with a Parrot on Her Head by Daisy Hirst is about a girl coming to terms with her friend moving away. Grandma by Jessica Shepherd is a loving and positive story about a grandmother slipping into dementia. Of course an inclusive book collection also needs books about positive emotions. Try The Jar of Happiness by Alisa Burrows for example.

Inclusive books do not all have words. Wordless picture books are accessible to everyone, whatever their abilities, whatever their language. Mirror by Jeannie Baker is incredibly thought-provoking about the differences and similarities between the average day lived by a family in the Middle East and a family in Australia. I love Here I Am by Patti Kim, about a child in a new country.

A good diverse book collection will have many books in which the inclusion is incidental. The books in this last set of recommendations are first and foremost lots of fun. They also encourage imagination and curiosity. Two of my all-time favourites are You Choose and Just Imagine by Pippa Goodhart. They guarantee enjoyment and engagement. Little Drivers Going Places by Dan Crisp and others in this series are great. Have a look at 15 Things Not to Do with a Baby by Margaret McAllistair, The Animal Boogie by Debbie Harter, Kangaroo Kisses by Nandana Dev Sen, Little Red and the Very Hungry Lion by Alex T Smith, Fussy Freya by Katharine Quarmby, This is Our House by Michael Rosen, Space Song Rocket Ride by Sunny Scribes, and How to Find Gold by Vivianne Schwarz. Children adore There's a Bear on My Chair by Ross Collins.

It's well worth mentioning Letterbox Library: a unique children's books supplier, committed to equality, diversity and inclusion.

Using and promoting inclusive books

If we want children to benefit from all these fabulous books, the most important thing of course is to make sure they are easily accessible. Children should be able to discover a wide range of books in which they can find themselves and books that help them understand others in the kinder boxes and on the shelves in their classrooms and libraries. We must bear these and other wonderful inclusive books in mind when we are recommending books for children to choose and when we talk to parents and carers about good books.

When we choose books to read aloud to children we must pick a diverse range so that we introduce children to new ideas and new ways of thinking about things. And as we read, we need to use the books as a spur for open questions and open discussion, to broaden children's understanding and enhance their social, emotional and personal development.

We must make sure that we give children time - individually and in small groups - to explore the richness of the books: the text, the pictures, the concepts. The best books are multi-layered and children need time to absorb, time to think and, let's not forget, time to enjoy. Reading for pleasure is paramount, and a good range of inclusive titles will most certainly encourage it.

Inclusive books can support teaching and learning in a wide range of curriculum topics. Many are superb for exploring issues in PSHE. Lots are great for history and geography. Think of Mirror for example. Books like Ada Twist Scientist and Rosie Revere Engineer can help break down barriers to STEM subjects among girls. Inclusive books are the perfect starting point for many philosophy for children discussions.

Use drama, role-play and hot-seating to help children get to grips with the complex issues many inclusive books introduce them to.

Use inclusive books as a stimulus for creativity. They pique children's curiosity, and can inspire brilliant and deeply thoughtful art-work and writing.

Conclusion

Diverse book collections promote equality and celebrate it. Inclusive books widen children's horizons, promote understanding, build tolerance, build bridges and build social cohesion. They provide role models and opportunities. They develop self-esteem and resilience. Children's publishing in this country is still far from representative of society, but let's make sure we track down, acquire, use and promote the very special books that are already out there, and let's continue to press for more.

Books listed

Ahmadreza Ahmadi, When I Coloured in the World, translated by Azita Rassi
M. Ajmera, E.H. Derstine and C. Pon, What We Wear
Kate Alizadeh, Quiet
Amnesty International, We Are All Born Free
Atinuke, Anna Hibiscus and The No 1 Car Spotter
Jeannie Baker, Mirror
Henriette Barkow, Alfie's Angels
Barroux, Mr Leon's Paris, translated by Sarah Ardizzone
Andrea Beaty, Ada Twist Scientist and Rosie and Revere Engineer
Michael Bond, Paddington
Alisa Burrows, The Jar of Happiness
Moira Butterfield, Everybody Feels Sad! and other books in the Everybody Feels series
Stephen Cheetham, Off to the Park
Lauren Child, The New Small Person
Ross Collins, There's a Bear on My Chair
Dan Crisp, Little Drivers Going Places and other books in the series
Hannah Cumming, The Cloud
Linda De Haan, King and King
Matt De La Peña, Last Stop on Market Street
Alexis Deacon, Beegu
Nandana Dev Sen, Kangaroo Kisses
Julia Donaldson, Freddie and the Fairy
Rebecca Elliott, Just Because
Jo Empson, Rabbityness
Marcus Ewert, 10,000 Dresses
Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick, The New Kid
Andrew Fusek Peters and Polly Peters, The Colour Thief
Sarah Garland, Azzi in Between
Pippa Goodhart, You Choose and Just Imagine
Kes Gray, Super Daisy
Stella Gurney, Kasia's Surprise and My Dad the Hero
Debbie Harter, The Animal Boogie
Patricia Hegarty, We Are Family
Daisy Hirst, The Girl with a Parrot on Her Head
Gillian Hobbs, Tilly's at Home Holiday
Mary Hoffman, Amazing Grace, The Colour of Home, The Great Big Body Book, The Great Big Book of Families, The Great Big Book of Feelings and Welcome to the Family
Ariane Hofman-Maniyar, Ice in the Jungle
Yasmeen Ismail, I'm a Girl and Specs for Rex
Anna Kemp, Boys Don't Do Ballet and The Worst Princess
Barbara Kerley, One World One Day
Patti Kim, Here I Am
Karin Littlewood, Immi
Margaret McAllistair, 15 Things Not to Do with a Baby
Anna McQuinn, Lulu Reads to Zeki (and the rest of the Lulu series), My Friend Amy and My Friend Jamal
Ben Morley, The Silence Seeker
Leslea Newman, Heather has Two Mummies and Donovan's Big Day
Richard O'Neill and Katharine Quarmby, Yokki and the Parno Gry
Karen Owen, It Could Be, You Could Be
Levi Pinfold, Black Dog
Craig Pomranz, Made by Raffi
Frann Preston-Gannon, The Journey Home
Katharine Quarmby, Fussy Freya
Anushka Ravishankar, To Market! To Market!
Na'ima bint Robert, The Swirling Hijab
Marie-Sabine Roger and Anne Sol, What are You Playing At?
Michael Rosen, This is Our House
Francesca Sanna, Journey
Miriam B Schiffer, Stella Brings the Family
Vivianne Schwarz, How to Find Gold
Sunny Scribes, Space Song Rocket Ride
Jessica Shepherd, Grandma
Alex T Smith, Little Red and the Very Hungry Lion
Sean Stockdale and Alexandra Strick, Max the Champion
Max Velthuijs, Frog and the Stranger
Melanie Walsh, Isaac and His Amazing Asperger Superpowers and My World Your World
Verna Wilkins, Abdi's Day and A Visit to City Farm
Jeanne Willis, Susan Laughs
Jane Yolen and Heidi Stemple, Not All Princesses Dress in Pink

Sources of further information

Barrington Stoke
Booktrust
IBBY
Inclusive Minds
Letterbox Library
Outside In World
We Need Diverse Books