Diverse Voices: Books That Reflect Young Readers and Their World

Giving all children the opportunity to see themselves and their world authentically represented in books is key to their personal and academic development.


“If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves,” Pulitzer Prize–winning author Junot Diaz once said, noting that underrepresentation was one of his motivations for writing. “Growing up I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all.”

Giving all children the opportunity to see themselves and their world authentically represented in books is key to their personal and academic development. The 2020 census shows that the United States is continuing to become more diverse and multiracial, so it’s more important than ever for publishers to offer librarians and educators the means to develop diverse, equitable, and inclusive collections.

“Our commitment to diversity cuts across our entire list,” says Ruth Chamblee, director of marketing for National Geographic Kids Books. “It’s important that we publishers are very intentional about bringing more authors and illustrators of color onto our list. We want to make sure that kids see themselves reflected in our books. So, we strive to showcase diversity whenever possible, whether that’s through characters, subjects, illustrations, photos, or the author voices.”

As publishers continue to diversify their lists, librarians and educators have an increasingly representative array of titles from which to choose. Here, eight publishers highlight some of their offerings by, about, or by and about people of color or with marginalized identities.

National Geographic Kids Books

“At National Geographic, we like to say that ‘we bring you the world and all that’s in it,’” says Ruth Chamblee, director of marketing. “So in that regard, diversity is sort of in our DNA.” National Geographic has been bringing stories and photography from around the globe into readers’ homes for decades through its renowned magazine and books. National Geographic Kids publishes about 50 titles a year, ranging from board books to middle grade. “Our commitment to diversity cuts across our entire list,” Chamblee says.


Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and author Michael Cottman’s Segregated Skies: David Harris’s Trailblazing Journey to Rise Above Racial Barriers, December 2021, ISBN 9781426371974, tells readers 9–12 the story of the first African American commercial airline pilot. David Harris flew B-52 bombers for the U.S. Air Force but struggled to get interviews with commercial airlines. In 1964, American Airlines hired him, but that wasn’t the end of his struggles. “It’s a story of difficult beginnings, segregation, dealing with all those issues,” Chamblee says.

National Geographic Kids is publishing two leveled readers about Black female politicians by Black female authors in January 2022. National Geographic Readers: Kamala Harris by Tonya K. Grant, ISBN 9781426373251, and National Geographic Readers: Stacey Abrams by Melissa H. Mwai, ISBN 9781426373268, are both fully illustrated Level 2 biographies. “Given what’s happening in the world and the fact that these names have been in the news so much we thought it was important to provide something for the younger reader to understand who these women are,” Chamblee says.

Speak Up, Speak Out! The Extraordinary Life of Fighting Shirley Chisholm, January 2022, ISBN 9781426372360, is award-winning author Tonya Bolden’s biography of the first Black woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and the first Black woman to run for president with a major political party. “We like to say, before there was Barack Obama, before there was Kamala Harris, there was ‘Fighting Shirley Chisholm,’” Chamblee says. “Black female politicians really see her as the groundbreaker. We’re very pleased to bring her story to the public through the lens of an African-American female writer.”

In 2019, Nepali mountaineer Nimsdai Purja summited all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter (26,000-foot) peaks in just over six months. Beyond Possible: One Man, Fourteen Peaks, and the Mountaineering Achievement of a Lifetime, January 2022, ISBN 9781426222535, is the young readers’ edition of his memoir for ages 10–14, detailing how he beat the previous record by over seven years. “He covers his childhood growing up in Nepal and what it took for him to accomplish this feat—the leadership skills, the problem-solving, the grit, not to mention the physical endurance,” Chamblee says.

Pirate Queens: Dauntless Women Who Dared to Rule the High Seas by Leigh Lewis, January 2022, ISBN 9781426371950, covers five female pirates who have been all but written out of history. “This is despite the fact that probably the greatest, most powerful pirate who ever lived was a woman,” Chamblee says. “Chinese pirate Ching Shih presided over a fleet of 80,000 men. Blackbeard had 300.” This book, for ages 8–12, corrects that through the women’s stories, poetry, a map, and illustrations by award-winning Latina artist Sara Gómez Woolley.


An aggregator of books, educational materials, and services, Minneapolis-based Mackin also offers professional development for educators through its Mackin Learning division. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Mackin’s employees began asking what they could do as Minnesotans and as education professionals.

Their reaction grew into Lifting Voices, a free, thematic monthly webinar series, featuring authors and publishers from underrepresented communities. “We know education really well, and all of its many forms, including educating the public about relevant topics like social justice,” says Troy Mikell, director of marketing and advertising. “We are really more than just a book distributor.”

Sociologist Kia Heise, PhD, who teaches Mackin Learning workshops to help educators navigate conversations on social inequality, facilitates the webinars. To date, the series has included a conversation on anti-racism with Frederick Joseph, an activist and the author of The Black Friend: On Being a Better White Person, and Colby Sharp, an author and fifth grade teacher. “They talked about applying these principles with colleagues and students,” Heise says.

Another event featured author Carole Lindstrom and illustrator Michaela Goade, creators of the best-selling picture book We Are Water Protectors. The protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock inspired the book. “We talked a lot about art and writing as activism and how those two things were not intentional in the writing of the book but how it became that,” Heise says.

“But most of the conversations are less about activism and more about how, when authors portray underrepresented and marginalized groups as normal, in their full humanity, that’s also a radical act. Because it’s just not something that kids get to see.”

This was precisely the focus of another webinar, featuring Simon & Schuster editors and authors of color. They discussed the impact that seeing oneself reflected in books has on the sense of self.

Drawing 1,200 to 2,000 registrations per event and thousands of post-event streams, the webinars are available on Mackin.com for continuing education credits as well as for use in classrooms. On Mackin.com, educators can also find 3.5 million titles for order, including lists segmenting the catalog by topics like racism or social justice. “Our collection development team constantly curates those lists,” Mikell says. “As an educator, you can go right in and find the list, and at this point there are thousands and thousands of titles on it.”

Lerner Publishing Group

In spring 2020, Lerner began collecting its pre-K–12 fiction and nonfiction titles about diverse characters or topics and experiences into a diverse books catalog and landing page. “We wanted to make it easy for librarians to find materials for whatever topic they might be looking for,” says Lois Wallentine, marketing director. “It’s a really great tool if you’re looking to diversify your collection in a certain area.” Educators will find titles organized by race/ethnicity, social justice, immigration/refugees, LGBTQIA+, and more, at lernerbooks.com/diversebooks. Here are some of the new titles in the catalog.

In Artie and the Wolf Moon, September 2021, ISBN 9781541542488, Black debut graphic novelist Olivia Stephens’s Black female middle school protagonist, Artie Irvin, discovers she comes from a long line of werewolves. As Artie struggles with her new identity, the werewolf community is essential to her learning to thrive. “I know for Olivia, it was important to depict different types of family relationships, blood relatives but also found family, and to develop the complicated but also rewarding process of engaging with your heritage and exploring that,” says Greg Hunter, editorial director of Graphic Universe, Lerner’s graphic novels imprint. The book is appropriate for grades 7–9.

The main character in Just Ash by Sol Santana, October 2021, ISBN 9781541599246, is a 16-year-old intersex boy. The novel, for grades 8–12, follows Ash as he gets his first period and must contend with his parents’ lack of acceptance of his gender identity. “It’s quite an emotionally harrowing story in places,” says Amy Fitzgerald, editorial director of Carolrhoda Books. “Ash is very certain that he is a guy, and no one around him really understands that for much of the book.”

Lerner’s Read Woke Books, created in partnership with SLJ’s Read Woke columnist Cicely Lewis, launched Issues in Action,” a new six-book nonfiction series for grades 4–8, in August. These 32-page overviews of big issues like gun violence, mass incarceration, the opioid epidemic, and police brutality emphasize underrepresented voices. “It’s not a pro-con,” Wallentine says. “It’s not a ‘Let’s look at both sides.’” For example, in Immigration, Refugees, and the Fight for a Better Life by Elliot Smith, ISBN 9781728423418, readers learn about family separations at the border, how the Trump administration restricted immigration, the history of the U.S. as a country founded by immigrants, and the difference between immigrant and refugee status.

Dark Horse Comics

In 1986, Mike Richardson founded Dark Horse Comics in Milwaukie, OR, with the goal of giving creators more rights over their own work. The company publishes about 300 titles a year in the form of comics, graphic novels, manga, and art books. Some of its best-known series include “Hellboy,” “The Umbrella Academy,” and “Black Hammer.” It published Star Wars comics for over 25 years and invented the aliens-versus-predator trope.

This fall, Dark Horse is launching YouNeek YouNiverse, a line of graphic novels for ages 12 and up, in partnership with YouNeek Studios. Nigerian-born author Roye Okupe founded YouNeek to bring comics and animation by African creatives to the U.S. market. All of YouNeek’s graphic novels are set in Africa, based on African mythology or history.

Malika: Warrior Queen Volume 1 by Roye Okupe, art by Chima Kalu and Raphael Kazeem, September 2021, ISBN 9781506723082, is a historical fantasy graphic novel. The queen and military commander of the 15th-century West African country of Azzaz, Malika is tasked with keeping the peace in her expanding empire. “Being both warrior and queen creates this very dynamic and sometimes overwhelming push and pull between when to choose diplomacy over aggression and vice versa,” Okupe says. “I believe readers will fall in love with a very deep character-driven story with a superpowered lead who is very relatable.”

A teenage orphan in mythical Africa discovers she has godlike powers and the responsibility to save humanity in Iyanu: Child of Wonder Volume 1 by Roye Okupe, art by Godwin Akpan, September 2021, ISBN 9781506723044. Like any teenager, all Iyanu wants is to fit in, but she has no memory of her past and lives in the forest with her mentor, where she must train. “Iyanu is The Chosen, because she knows what it feels like to be alone, ostracized, neglected, and rejected,” Okupe says. “Her empathy pushes her to never want anyone else to feel what she’s had to deal with for most of her life.”

The most traditional superhero comic of the line is E.X.O.: The Legend of Wale Williams Volume 1 by Roye Okupe, art by Sunkanmi Akinboye and Raphael Kazeem, October 2021, ISBN 9781506723020. The son of a world-renowned scientist, Wale Williams wants to save his city from a group of terrorist extremists. Tech-savvy, he comes up with a suit of armor that gives him special powers and the alias “EXO.”

In WindMaker Volume 1 by Roye Okupe, art by Sunkanmi Akinboye and Toyin Ajetunmobi, April 2022, ISBN 9781506723112, the beloved president of the fictional West African country of Atala has turned into a vicious dictator. Our protagonist, the head of security, faces difficult questions on his journey to becoming the mythical WindMaker. “What do you do when someone you love and respect suddenly starts to make choices that could affect millions of lives negatively? Are you an accomplice if you do nothing?” Okupe says. “I wanted to highlight some of the very dire consequences that could come with blind loyalty, especially when huge political power is involved.”


One of the all-time best-selling children’s series, Choose Your Own Adventure” began in 1979 at Bantam Books. In 2006, Chooseco was established to bring the classic middle grade gamebook series back to print. In addition to the backlist of the 48 original titles, the company publishes 8 to 15 new titles a year and has extended the brand to board books, beginning readers for ages 5–9, horror titles, and spy/historical fiction titles.

The newest title in the series, The Citadel of Whispers by Kazim Ali, October 2021, ISBN 9781937133924, follows a group of young friends as the empire across the sea is threatening the land. Instead of building his world around the European Middle Ages like most fantasy stories, Ali used classical India as his foundational setting. But the society is diverse.

Told in the second person, this YA novel invites each reader to play the protagonist, Krishi, a student at the citadel studying to join the secret order of the Whisperers. The Whisperers are spy diplomats trained in martial arts and magic who take it upon themselves to keep people living free. The interactive series puts the story in the reader’s hands, with multiple endings possible. Each reader chooses Krishi’s path, deciding what he should do and how he should act.

“I’m really excited about the fact that almost every single character doesn’t conform to traditional gender roles,” Ali says. There’s a swashbuckling pirate captain, who is an excellent sword fighter, troublemaker, and an older woman. “The best fighter in the group of friends, who’s always ready to throw down, is a girl,” he says. “And the main character is really meant to be a gender-nonconforming character. They don’t have a specific gender.” This gives each reader the opportunity to assign their own gender identity to Krishi as they read.

Flowerpot Press

Brother and sister Patrick and Anne Hayes founded Flowerpot Press in 2005. With offices in Toronto and Nashville, Flowerpot publishes about 40 books a year for ages 0–10, with the mission to “plant the seeds to help young minds grow.”

A couple of years ago, Anne met Keith Harris and heard the inspiring story of his son Tim, who was born with Down syndrome. Tim’s accomplishments are amazing by any standards. In middle school, he set his mind to becoming a restaurateur. After attending a four-year university and learning about the restaurant business, he realized his dream with his family by opening Tim’s Place in Albuquerque, NM, a full-service breakfast and lunch restaurant. The first item on the menu? Hugs.

“People would finish their meal and ask their waiter to find Tim and serve up a hug,” Keith says. “That really became the trademark of the restaurant.” Many news organizations covered Tim’s Place, and Tim’s hugs went viral. President Obama even invited Tim to a state dinner honoring the Special Olympics and requested a hug on the spot.

After hearing Tim’s story, Anne and Patrick asked him to author a children’s book, The Book of Hugs, by Tim Harris, illustrated by Charlie Astrella, September 2021, ISBN 9781486721047. “It’s about my hugs and how hugs can change the world,” Tim says. “The book teaches children how to give hugs like me.” The book, for ages 5–8, covers different kinds of hugs—bear hugs, quick hugs, sad hugs, happy hugs. And it offers kids three simple steps to giving the best hug they can give.

Tim is launching a Hug-a-Thon this month in partnership with Hearts of Joy International, a nonprofit based in Los Angeles. As many as 40 to 50 percent of babies born with Down syndrome are also born with a congenital heart defect requiring surgery. Hearts of Joy provides this life-saving surgery to babies in Uganda, India, the Philippines, Mexico, and the U.S. The organization has facilitated 35 heart surgeries since 2019. The Hug-a-Thon will encourage people to hug their loved ones while raising funds for the organization. Visit hug4hearts.org to learn how your school or class can participate.


Turning 30 this year, Capstone aims to get kids excited about learning, says associate publisher Beth Brezenhoff. The house publishes about 500 titles a year for pre-K–5 readers.

A new series, Camila the Star” by Alicia Salazar, illustrated by Thais Damiaão, follows the determined Camila Maria Flores Ortiz in her many (failed) attempts to become the star she knows she was born to be. In one book, she tries breaking a world record. In another, she auditions for a play. In Camila the Baking Star, ISBN 9781515883180, January 2021, she competes in a TV bake-off. “She’s Mexican-American, but what I love is, this series isn’t overtly about her ethnic background,” Brezenhoff says. “It’s really just about her as a person.”

Another new series, Mr. Grizley’s Class” for K–2 readers by Bryan Patrick Avery, centers on a class of second graders who work together to solve problems. “We intentionally wanted Mr. Grizley to be a Black man,” Brezenhoff says. “There’s tons of research showing that when kids of color have a teacher of color, it really sets them on this path of success.” In Emily’s Big Shot, ISBN 9781663920997, August 2021, Emily, who is in a wheelchair, wants to play hockey in gym class. Her classmates help by creating a special hockey stick for her.

My Sister, Daisy by Adria Karlsson, illustrated by Linus Curci, September 2021, ISBN 9781684463848, tells the story of a little boy who loves being a big brother and does everything with his sibling. He’s taken by surprise when his younger sibling tells him she is a girl, not a boy like he always thought. “It’s about that experience of learning about his sister’s gender identity and how the family comes together,” Brezenhoff says. “And it’s just a beautiful story about acceptance and love and what a family can look like.”

Another picture book, Best Buddies by Lynn Plourde, illustrated by Arthur Lin, September 2021, ISBN 9781684461431, is about a little boy going to school for the first time. The hard part is leaving behind his best friend and sidekick, his dog. They do everything together, and now they need to figure out how to handle this big change. “The main character has Down syndrome, which actually isn’t discussed in the book,” Brezenhoff says. “One thing we’re really trying to do is not make one characteristic of a person their whole story.”

Shadow Mountain Publishing

Known for its best-selling middle grade fantasy series Dragonwatch” and Fablehaven,” Shadow Mountain Publishing also emphasizes empathy-building titles and clean content. That means books that exclude foul language, violence, sex, and drugs.

In the picture book A Child of God by Mauli Bonner and Chantel Bonner, illustrated by Morgan Bissant, September 2021, ISBN 9781629729176, two Black siblings notice they don’t see themselves portrayed in visual representations of their Christian faith. Their father encourages them to draw angels however they like. For ages 4–7, “this book is a very gentle but highly impactful way to introduce how pervasive lack of representation is in our culture and how it affects the BIPOC community,” says marketing director Ilise Levine.

Debut author Laura Ojeda Melchor writes about two sisters growing up Latinx in a small town in Montana in Missing Okalee, September 2021, ISBN 9781629729329. For ages 8–11, the novel is about Okalee, the favorite daughter, and her older sister Phoebe, who struggles to be heard. When Okalee gets swept away in a river and drowns, Phoebe struggles with survivor’s guilt and grief. This deeply affecting title about family secrets, lies, and a vulnerable teenager without support cuts across cultural and racial boundaries.

The Legend of the Dream Giants by Dustin Hansen, March 2022, ISBN 9781629729862, for readers 8–11, is a hybrid novel with 120 illustrations. The main character’s mother hid him away in a cave in his youth and sacrificed her own life to protect him. He’s grown up isolated and lonely. When he ventures out, the villagers perceive him as a monstrous giant and chase him away with pitchforks and torches. “There were so many moments where I really had to catch my emotions, because of the descriptions of his otherness, and his loneliness, and his being misunderstood, and his fear,” Levine says.

Based on a true story, The Rent Collector: Adapted for Young Readers from the Best-Selling Novel by Camron Wright, April 2022, ISBN 9781629729855, gives readers 10 and up a glimpse into the lives of two women from disparate economic classes in Cambodia. The protagonist lives in poverty at a city dump. She sifts through trash for recyclables and items that can be repaired and sold to get by. But things change for her when the widely loathed rent collector teaches her to read. “As the women read together, they start to bond,” Levine says. “And we see the power of literacy to connect people by shared experiences.”



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