Bob Seeney On Books

Addressing Diversity Through Literature

January, 2018

In February, I will be presenting a session at the University of Denver’s Morgridge College of Education’s Gifted Conference. My topic is “Exploring Diversity through Books.” As I was trying to select a book to review for this issue, my mind kept returning to the books I’ll be sharing at the conference. We’re all aware that diversity in our classrooms is now the norm, not the exception. Our own 2e students are part of this diversity. Therefore, some questions we must address are these:

  • How do we build empathy and understanding in a world in which diversity is now the norm?
  • How do we help our learners walk in someone else’s shoes?
  • How do we help our students learn about the cultures/situations of classmates who are not like them? 

These are just the start of the questions we must all address if we are to seriously consider the diversity in our schools, in our cities, in our nation, and in our world.

A Note to Readers

Hearing your views on diversity would be most interesting. Send your comments to: rwseney@muw.edu.

Addressing diversity is even more important for our gifted learners. Due to their heightened sensitivities, these children genuinely feel the inequities and injustices that often result from a lack of understanding of diversity.

Readers will not be surprised, then, by my stance regarding literature as a safe and highly appropriate vehicle for exploring diversity in all its forms. By using a strength of most gifted learners, reading, we can bring the world into the classroom and address the issues of diversity through literature. This will be the focus of my session at the conference.

Three of the picture books I will be sharing are:

  • It’s Okay to Be Different (2001, Little, Brown & Co), written and illustrated by Todd Parr
  • Happy in Our Skin (2015, Candlewick Press), written by Fran Manushkin and illustrated by Lauren Tobia
  • One Family (2015, Frances Foster Books), written by George Shannon and illustrated by Blanca Gomez.

All three celebrate who we are and the differences among us.

The first book, It’s Okay to be Different, was briefly reviewed in this column last spring. It has bright primary-color illustrations done in a child-like artistic style. The book’s jacket presents its theme:

It’s okay to be a different color
It’s okay to dance by yourself.
It’s okay to wear glasses.
It’s okay to have a pet worm…
It’s okay to be different.

Throughout the book, the author identifies, addresses, and celebrates various forms of diversity. At the end, he offers readers this note: "It’s okay to be different. You are special and important just because of being who you are. Love Todd."

This book is a wonderful presentation of diversity in all its forms. Readers of all ages will find it easy to relate to and love.

The second book, Happy in Our Skin, has a similar theme. Manushkin’s upbeat and rolling text in rhyme addresses our differences through skin tones. At the climax of the story, Tobia presents a delightful illustration of a block party, depicting diversity in many forms. This image beautifully matches and enhances the text:

What a wonderful world!
Such a hullabaloo —
              with all of us in it!
See the splendid view;
              bouquets of people,
blooming and boisterous,
              brawny and thin,
loving each day … Happy in our skin!

This duo of Manushkin and Tobia has delivered a happy book that presents its message clearly and strongly. Here again, we find the importance of closely investigating the illustrations. Much of the charm and the theme of this delightful text are enhanced by the images.

The third book is One Family. This wonderful little picture book, with its simple text, could be considered a counting book; but there is so much more here. One Family celebrates diversity through depicting the many forms in which we find family units. We see “traditional” families; mixed-race families; families with same-gender parents; and more. This is also a “search” book. In each double-page illustration, the book’s creators have placed a “hidden” visual clue and presentation of the number under consideration. For younger readers, there’s a visual guide to these clues at the end of the book.

What’s really fun in this book is the author’s and illustrator’s use of the end pages, both front and back. Be sure to compare them. Here again, you’ll find the book’s theme presented, supported, and celebrated.

At the upcoming conference, I will be sharing novels as well. Two of them address twice-exceptionality and have been reviewed in this column in the past:

  • Wonder (2012, Knopf), by P. J. Palacio, reviewed July, 2012. There is now a picture-book version of Wonder entitled: We’re All Wonders (2017, Knopf), written and illustrated by P. J. Palacio.
  • El Deafo (2014, Abrams), by Cece Bell, reviewed November, 2015.

[Both of these reviews are contained in Professor Seney’s Spotlight on 2e Series booklet, Bob Seney: On Books.]

Diversity is a seriously important, contemporary issue; and we must address it in our homes and in our classrooms. One major element in discussing diversity is empathy. What better way is there to foster empathy than through books?

Bob Seney

Happy Reading!

Professor Emeritus Bob Seney is retired from teaching in the Masters of Gifted Studies Program at Mississippi University for Women. He has been 2e Newsletter's children's book columnist since 2007. Reach him at bseney@muw.edu.

Return to top