Do the books on your centre’s bookshelves reflect the ethnic make-up of your families? Can every child in your centre read books, lots of them, every day, about children who look like them?

These are important questions for anyone responsible for young children’s wellbeing.

If you are of European descent, you’ll find thousands of picture books filled with people that look kind of like you, but if you have some ancestors from any other part of the world, it may be trickier to see yourself in books.

As Soraya Chemaly writes in the Huffington Post:

The Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education has conducted a survey of children’s and young adult books published each year since 1985. Of an estimated 5,000 books released in 2012, only 3.3% featured African-Americans; 2.1% featured Asian-Americans or Pacific Islanders; 1.5% featured Latinos; and only 0.6% featured Native Americans. God forbid you have the audacity to be a girl of color and expect to see yourself as cherished by our culture.

That’s obviously a problem. So today we have some ways to help you make sure your home or education centre isn’t contributing to this huge imbalance.

Your community will have its own unique mix of families so I won’t try to make a list here of books with characters who may or may not match your reality – homes and centres in Nigeria will need to have a differently-balanced book collection from those in Canada or Australia.

Instead, what I have is two lists: one of some recent, fantastic picture books that have characters with a range of skin tones and ethnicities, suitable for any centre or family, and another with a bunch of links to specific lists that might be useful in your neighbourhood.

Fantastic books to buy for your centre

These are books that not only feature characters with a range of skin tones and ethnic backgrounds, but also have positive messages in terms of gender equality, different kinds of families, and other great values.

Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes, by Mem Fox, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury

Say Hello! by Rachel Isadora

Splash! Anna Hibiscus, by Atinuke, illustrated by Lauren Tobia

Keys, by Sacha Cotter, illustrated by Josh Morgan

Oh Hogwash, Sweet Pea! by Ngāreta Gabel, translated by Hannah Rainforth, illustrated by Ali Teo and Astrid Jensen

That’s not a Hippopotamus! by Juliette MacIver, illustrated by Sarah Davis

Ada Twist: Scientist, by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts

Last Stop on Market Street, by Matt de la Peña

The Longest Breakfast, by Jenny Bornholdt, illustrated by Sarah Wilkins

Mama Panya’s Pancakes, by Mary and Rich Chamberlin, illustrated by Julia Cairns

Barnaby Bennett, by Hannah Rainforth, illustrated by Ali Teo

Have you seen Elephant? by David Barrow

Hush! A Thai Lullaby, by Minfong Ho, illustrated by Holly Meade

Happy Belly, Happy Smile, by Rachel Isadora

Roadworks (or Roadwork) by Sally Sutton, illustrated by Brian Lovelock

A Summery Saturday Morning, by Margaret Mahy

Superhero Levi, by Robyn Kahukiwa

A Gift for Ana, by Jane Va’afusuaga, illustrated by Azra Pinder-Pancho

Juliana’s Bananas, by Ruth Walton

I am so brave, by Stephen Krensky, illustrated by Sara Gillingham

Counting in the South Pacific, by Jill Jaques, illustrated by Deborah Hinde

Wooden Arms, by Sarah Johnson, illustrated by Scott Tulloch

Places to look for more

A range of multicultural book lists

Books from South Asia/the Indian Subcontinent

Books featuring Asian and Asian-American children

Collections of themed lists on all sorts of social justice subjects

Books featuring Māori and Pasifika children

50 books with a range of faces

Books starring Black girls

Books set in Africa



Thalia Kehoe Rowden was a Playcentre kid before attending St John’s Hill Kindergarten in Whanganui, New Zealand. Some time later, she became a Baptist church minister, then a mother and a writer. She now lives with her husband and two small children in Wellington, New Zealand, and knows more about dinosaurs and astronomy than ever before. You can follow her on TwitterFacebook, and her parenting, spirituality and social justice website, Sacraparental.

Posted by Sonya McIntyre

Sonya was born in Lower Hutt and went to Rata Street Kindergarten and Petone Kindergarten. A qualified ECE, she studied at Victoria University in Wellington and has worked with home-based educators, in community-based childcare and in kindergarten. With childhood memories of reading books and writing stories, combined with her passion for all things social media, Sonya segued into her role with us at Storypark as social media manager.

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