We live in a multicultural society and the diversity of our world is what makes it beautiful. This is a lesson I am trying to teach my sons, especially when racism and intolerance persist in making life miserable for many.
It can be a challenge to broaden the horizons of small children and introduce to different races and cultures, particularly when you live in a fairly homogeneous part of the UK as we do. Books are the perfect device to do this but they are disappointingly unrepresentative.
Did you know that roughly a third of primary school pupils in Britain come from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, but only ONE per cent of children’s books published in 2017 included a BAME lead character.
A study by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education also found that of the 9,115 new kids books published that year, just 391 had a BAME character at all, even in the background – that’s about four per cent.
Of those that did have any diversity of race, ten per cent were classified as containing social justice issues while one solitary book – yes, one! – was a comedy.
It goes without saying this is simply not good enough, no matter what your own ethnic background. Not only do BAME children need to see themselves reflected in the stories they read, but white ones like Baby Bookworm should read about a world as diverse as it actually is.
Including these characters is crucial for creating empathy and acceptance, in the hope that the next generation will not see the same hatred, discrimination and unrest that we are still fighting against.
If you want to diversify your child’s bedtime reads, here are 25 books to get you started. All of them brilliant stories which happen to star a lead character who is Black, Asian or minority ethnic.
1. So Much! by Trish Cooke, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury. £6.99 (paperback), Walker
The love and joy that a baby brings to a family is a precious thing, with this fascinating little person becoming a focal point for loved ones. This award-winning and uplifting story captures this sense of adoration perfectly.
As a cast of relatives arrive ready for a surprise party, each one expresses their affect for the child in different ways – hugs, play fights, kisses, games and stories.
The language is rich, descriptive and repetitive, with Helen Oxenbury’s bright gouache pictures capturing their energy perfectly. While the book reflects Trish Cooke’s Afro-Caribbean heritage, the message is universal – and just a joy to share. Available from Amazon
2. The Very Little Rapunzel by Teresa Heapy and Sue Heap. £6.99 (paperback), Puffin
The traditional fairytale character is reimagined as a strong-willed toddler who won’t cut her voluminous dark hair, no matter how much her mummy tries to persuade her.
They experiment different styles to no avail. It is only when a Very Little Prince comes to play and her long mane get in the way , then the dreaded nits strike, that she comes up with an extreme solution – and an ingenious new way to use the leftover locks.
Sweet and funny, this tale by Heapy and Heap has toddler behaviour down to a T. Buy from Amazon
3. Ravi’s Roar by Tom Percival. £6.99 (paperback), Bloomsbury
Being the smallest sibling is great most of the time but sometimes Ravi gets frustrated. Why does he have to share a train seat with Dad and the dog? And why can’t he reach the monkey bars in the park?
Normally Ravi can control his temper but one day his fury bubbles over and he unleashes the tiger within, with a roar far bigger than his size. He’s delighted with his new fierce persona – until no one wants to play anymore.
A sweet and engaging story about dealing with emotions and learning to express your feelings, with really charming illustrations too. Available from Amazon
4. The New Small Person by Lauren Child. £6.99 (paperback), Puffin
Lauren Child sprinkles her magic on the well-trodden tale about coming to terms with having a new sibling. In this take, Elmore Green is not best pleased when he goes from having everything and everyone to himself, to having to share with The New Small Person.
But as the new arrival grows, Elmore begins to see that sharing your life with another might be quite good fun – so long as they don’t eat your orange jelly beans.
From Child’s signature collage artwork to the gradual flowering of the brothers’ relationship, this is well observed and totally heartwarming – especially when Elmore starts calling his sidekick by his proper name (Albert) as he accepts him as part of the family. Available from Amazon
5. The Ted books by Sophy Henn. £6.99 each (board book), Bloomsbury
This charming series of board books about a bobble hatted toddler called Ted are real favourites in our house. There are eight stories now, each about the everyday activities that are a big part of the lives of little ones, like teatime, storytime and playtime.
Each tale is simple, repetitive and made for joining in, with full page flaps to lift and reveal Ted in an exciting imaginary world with his toy pals, sliding down ice creams or scaling mountains.
They are great reads for tackling tricky topics like fussy eating and bedtime refusal too. Available from Amazon
6. The Dinosaur Department Store by Lily Murray and Richard Merritt. £6.99 (paperback), Buster Books
Dino-loving Eliza Jane demands a prehistoric pet of her own for her fourth birthday – which her reluctant parents bravely agree to. Thus follows a bonkers trip to the Dinosaur Department Store owned by flamboyant Mr Magisaurus.
After a tour of his collection of hadrosaurs, sauropods and ankylosaurs, Eliza-Jane declines to take one home… and secretly sets the stock free because she decides they would be happier in the wild.
Huge fun, with a hearty helping of dinosaurs and many important messages for children, not least that girls can like dinos too. Buy from Amazon
7. The Anna Hibiscus books by Atinuke, illustrated by Lauren Tobia. £7.99 (paperback), Walker
Author Atinuke is a wonderful storyteller, who shares her modernised renditions of traditional folktales from the African continent and the African Diaspora with audiences worldwide.
She also writes children’s books all set on the African continent and often featuring the Anna Hibiscus, a little girl who is curious and enthusiastic about life, as she navigates everything from days out to becoming a big sister.
The stories were originally published as chapter books but there are now three picture books too – Anna Hibiscus’ Song, Splash Anna Hibiscus and Double Trouble for Anna Hibiscus. We love their joyful nature, the way they introduce children to the wonders of life in “Amazing Africa” and how Anna has a mixed race parents just like Atinuke herself. Available from Amazon
8. Billy and the Beast / Billy and the Dragon by Nadia Shireen. £6.99 each (paperback), Puffin
Sassy Billy is a heroine for every independent lady out there, with her glorious hair that hides a thousand handy things and her cool companion Fatcat.
The first adventures see unflappable Billy rescues the woodland creatures from the clutches of a hungry beast using just her sharp thinking, while the follow-up has our gal heading after a fire-breathing dragon when fancy dress goes very wrong.
9. Convertible Playbook: Animal Hospital, illustrated by Richard Watson. £14.99 (large hardback) / £9.99 (small hardback), Miles Kelly
Miles Kelly’s range of convertible playbooks are a clever way to engage reluctant readers as they magically transform into a building and playmat, with pop out characters so children can act out the tale – or create their own adventures.
They also have a diverse cast and smash gender stereotypes, with female mechanics and male nurses. In this Animal Hospital version – which comes in two sizes – you can follow vet Sam through her working day, from checking microchips on lost animals to administering medicine. Buy from Amazon
10. Baby Goes To Market by Atinuke, illustrated by Angela Brooksbank. £6.99 (board book), Walker
Another gorgeous offering from Atinuke. When Mama takes Baby to the crowded market to do her shopping, the sellers can’t resist sharing their goods with the cheeky little one. Before Mama knows it, her basket is full of bananas and biscuits – with Baby having sampled everything first, of course.
There’s a mischievous element to this simple tale that babies and toddlers will really enjoy, not to mention the repetitive text, counting and food stuffs to identify. It’s also makes a refreshing change by being set in an authentic African community. Available from Amazon
11. Izzy Gizmo by Pip Jones, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie. £6.99 (paperback), Simon & Schuster
Inventor Izzy creates marvellous, magnificent machines – although they often malfunction. It makes her feel like quitting but her Grandpa encourages her to carry on, even after Swirly-Spagsonic shreds his wallpaper.
Then one day Izzy rescues an injured crow and they become the best of friends. Can she find a way to help him fly again?
With lovely rhyming text and a kick-ass leading lady, this story smashes stereotypes and has a strong message about persistence and following your dreams. We love that Izzy lives with her Grandpa too but that isn’t the story’s focus – families that aren’t the ‘norm’ are rare in picture books. Buy from Amazon
12. Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love. £11.99 (hardback), Walker
This celebratory book by Brooklyn-based author and illustrator Jessica Love is beautiful inside and out. It tells the story of a little boy who spots some fabulous ‘real life’ mermaids on the subway and is inspired to go home and dress like his idols.
When his Nana finds him, Julian is initially fearful of her reaction. But the wise and loving older lady hands him a string of beads and takes him out to proudly parade with the other mermaids.
The simple acceptance of Julian for who he is, with no heavy emotional dialogue, is wonderful and I love the variety of fabulous female body shapes on display too. Available from Amazon
13. If I Had A Dinosaur by Alex Barrow and Gabby Dawnay. £6.99 (paperback), Thames & Hudson
Comic capers ensue when a little girl decides against a run of the mill pet and adopts a big, green dinosaur instead. He’s great at tricks, love chasing sticks and the envy of her friends. There’s only one downside – the giant poo!
We love the witty visual scenes that bring this smart rhyming tale to life, from a dinosaur frolicking in the park and going through a dino-flap in the door to having its giant gnashers brushed with a broom and cuddling up with the family on the sofa. Cosy indeed! Available from Amazon
14. I Have To Start At School Today by Simon Philip and Ged Adamson. £6.99 (paperback), Simon & Schuster
Starting school anxieties are tackled in a humorous but reassuring way in this sweet new book with a wonderful rhyme by I Really Want The Cake author Simon Philip.
The little girl is fretting about her first day and what might go wrong, from rhinos blocking the gates demanding passwords to bears hogging the last spare seat and scoffing all the lunch apart from one sardine. It doesn’t help that her older brother is telling tall tales about what to expect.
But when her wise granny steps in to listen to her fears, she discovers that maybe the rhino, bear and baboon could be allies and help her first day go more than right? Buy from Amazon
15. Unicorn Club by Suzy Senior and Leire Martin. £6.99 (paperback), Little Tiger
When Amy decides to start a fan club for unicorn lovers on Saturday mornings, she is gutted when none of her friends show up for the inaugural meeting. But there is a surprise in the treehouse – a blessing of unicorns are waiting to have fun.
This brightly coloured book sees Amy have the time of her life as her magical new pals get down at her home disco, get creative with some crafting and eat all the snacks, before showing off their skills creating a cool Unicorn Club mural. It’s very girly good fun. Available from Amazon
16. The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. £5.57 (paperback), Puffin
American author and illustrator Ezra Jack Keats was a pioneer in children’s literature, breaking the colour barrier when he published The Snowy Day in 1962 about a black boy called Peter. The simple story was to be the first of many featuring the landmark character and won the distinguished Caldecott Medal the following year.
Keats believed that all children should see themselves in books and based his stories on his own impoverished upbringing in an urban, multiracial setting. Peter’s day in the snow is all about the simple pleasures a blanketing of the white stuff can bring – laying footprints in fresh fall, poking laden branches with sticks and warming up in the bath afterwards.
We particularly love his unique illustrative style, which combines collages of different textured fabrics, homemade snowflake stamps and splatterings of ink from a toothbrush. It’s just like a child making art. Buy from Amazon
17. The Extraordinary Gardener by Sam Boughton. £6.99 (paperback), Tate
Nature can transform a grey day into something beautiful, which is a lesson Joe discovers as he plants an apple pip on his balcony. The little boy has a colourful imagination but he wishes the real world could be as vivid and wild.
From this little seed, large things grow and soon Joe is spreading joy to friends and neighbours, cultivating his blooming plants so that everyone can experience the extraordinary.
Sam Boughton’s debut book is incredibly uplifting, has an empowering message that is much appreciated in these troubling times and the artwork is quite simply stunning, mixing different medias and vibrant colours to great effect. Available from Amazon
18. Mr Scruff by Simon James. £7.99 (paperback), Walker
There’s an old theory that dogs look like their owners, which seems to ring true for Polly and Molly, Eric and Derek, Martha and Arthur. But unlike the poodle, sausage dog and English sheep dog, Mr Scruff hasn’t found his perfect pairing and is all alone in the dogs’ home.
Then a boy called Joe turns up looking for a friend and despite being chalk and cheese, the two might just be made for each other…
A sweet tale about friendship and acceptance from award-winning author Simon James, whose artwork will appeal to anyone with a fondness for the great Quentin Blake. The text has a snappy rhyme to it, too. Buy from Amazon
19. Ruby’s Worry by Tom Percival. £6.99 (paperback), Bloomsbury
A problem shared is a problem halved, as Ruby discovers in this reassuring and sensitive story with really gorgeous artwork.
The little girl is carefree and happy until one day a Worry arrives, following her everywhere and growing as she frets and fears what it means. It turns her bright world dark and her smile into a frown. How can she ever shake it off?
But after seeing another child looking glum in the park, she sits down to cheer him up – and by talking about what is on their minds, the pesky Worries start to shrink. The perfect springboard for tackling sensitive subject with anxious kids. Available from Amazon
20. Beast Feast by Emma Yarlett. £10.99 (hardback), Walker
This tasty tale has three key ingredients that make it so moreish – a funny but touching storyline, amazing artwork and clever interactivity in the form of letters to open and read.
Beast is ever so pleased to have captured Dinner and invites his monstrous pals over for a feast, sending each one an invite. As their replies come in, Dinner uses his wiles to win Beast round and escape his dreaded fate – becoming a guest at the party instead of the meal. Available from Amazon
21. The Mega Magic Hair Swap by Rochelle Humes, illustrated by Rachel Suzanne. £6.99 (paperback), Studio Press
Pop star turned presenter Rochelle Humes was inspired to write this tale of interracial friendship and being happy in your own skin after her own daughter complained about her afro locks.
Mai has voluminous curly, whirl hair while best friend Rose has a blonde straight-as-a-ruler mane. They wish they could swap but when they magically get the chance to do so thanks to a talking coconut, things don’t go to plan.
The two girls soon realise they are happier being who they are – and that they don’t need to change for their friends to love them. Available from Amazon
22. Red Red Red by Polly Dunbar. £7.99 (paperback), Walker
Big emotions can be overwhelming for small people as anyone who has dealt with toddler tantrums or stroppy three-nagers knows. But this clever book by acclaimed author Polly Dunbar offers a simple way to help them find some calm.
When the little lad sees “red, red, RED!”, his mummy teaches him to take a deep breathe and count to ten instead – wise advice frazzled parents could benefit from too.
Aside from the meditative guidance, this book is a lively and lovely to read aloud, with childlike red crayon scribbles used to clever effect to show the boy’s feelings. Available from Amazon
23. My Pet Star by Corrinne Averiss and Rosalind Beardshaw. £6.99 (paperback), Orchard Books
When a little girl finds a falling star, she takes him home a nurses him back to health. But as much as she loves her new pet, it becomes clear that Earth isn’t the best place for him to thrive.
This book is totally charming, with lovely rhyming text by Corrinne Averiss and atmospheric, shimmering artwork by Rosalind Beardshaw. The messages about friendship, letting animals live in their natural habitat and saying goodbye are very nicely done, too. Buy from Amazon
24. My Monster and Me by Nadiya Hussain, illustrated by Ella Bailey. £6.99 (paperback), Hodder
TV chef Nadiya Hussain has talked publicly about her struggles with anxiety, which started in childhood, and this sensitive book is clearly written by someone who understands the subject well.
Aided by Ella Bailey’s colourful illustrations, we discover how the boy’s Worry Monster follows him through life and when he tries to tell his loved ones about his unwanted pal, the creature hides from view.
As the monster starts to stop him living his life and grows bigger and angrier, the boy eventually confides in his Gran – and soon the monster shrinks to pocket-sized, letting the child keep him under control at last. Available from Amazon
25. The Princess and the Pony by Kate Beaton. £7.99 (paperback), Walker
When Princess Pinecone requests a powerful steed worthy of a brave warrior maiden, a pumping pony with eyes that look in opposite directions is not what she had in mind. But as her horse is birthday gift, she is too polite to send him back and tries her best to train him for the big battle.
The duo stand out like a sore thumb when their day of destiny arrives but the Princess soon discovers that behind every strongman and woman is a softer side, waiting to be brought out by a cute, cuddly pony.