Making Diverse Picture Books: An Inside Look from The Barefoot Book of Children Co-Author Kate DePalma

By now we all know that #WeNeedDiverseBooks — both that children benefit tremendously from being exposed to diversity through literature, and that the statistics about diversity in picture books remain pretty grim.

The solution to this problem is simple: we as publishers just need to make books that feature children of all different shapes, sizes, races, abilities, cultures, lifestyles and backgrounds. Brandon Taylor observed in a recent article that “There Is No Secret to Writing about People Who Do Not Look Like You” and in many ways this wisdom relates to many parts of creating a book — illustration, art direction and editing.

In other words, talking about the need to represent all children in books is easy; actually doing so is another matter entirely!

Diversity in Barefoot Books’ Picture Books

Introducing children to other people and places and ways of life has been part of the mission at Barefoot Books since we started making books nearly 25 years ago. For us, diversity means creating versions of classic tales from various cultures to add to our collection of global picture books. It means creating stories with main characters of color, whether they’re from countries or cultures that might be foreign to Western readers, like Chandra’s Magic Light (US), Lin Yi’s Lantern (US/CA) and Girl with a Brave Heart (US/CA), or from places that might look familiar to Western readers, like Sand Sister (US/CA) and Shopping with Dad (US/CA) and the Ruby books (US/CA), to name a few (Find more here!).

Making Diverse Picture Books: An Inside Look from The Barefoot Book of Children Co-Author Kate DePalma

From Ruby's Baby Brother

Diversity means featuring strong, substantial female characters in our books, and including children with a range of different disabilities in our books — particularly in our line of singalong stories, which often feature diverse groups of kids going on adventures together and bopping to the beat. It means representing diverse lifestyles — different family structures, different socioeconomic statuses, and even choices like breastfeeding.

And it means always looking for new ways to make our list and our company even more diverse and inclusive. We’ve learned that being a publisher that prioritizes diversity is an active process — and I’d love to tell you more about it!

Making Diverse Picture Books: An Inside Look from The Barefoot Book of Children Co-Author Kate DePalma

From My Big Barefoot Book of Wonderful Words

Diversity in our books starts with diversity in the humans who create them. We search for authors and artists (and home office staff!) of all different cultures and backgrounds. We’ve learned that we can’t just sit back and wait for a diverse range of contributors to cross our paths, so we’re trying to actively seek out contributors who bring those diverse points of view to our books, which includes communicating our need for diverse contributors to agents, who are often critical gatekeepers to the publishing process.

The Wonderful Diversity of Wonderful Words

Visual representations of human diversity are a huge part of diversity in picture books. When we decided to create My Big Barefoot Book of Wonderful Words (US/CA) — a big, busy word book full of scenes with crowds of people — we knew we had an opportunity to include lots of different kinds of people.

Making Diverse Picture Books: An Inside Look from The Barefoot Book of Children Co-Author Kate DePalma

From My Big Barefoot Book of Wonderful Words

So we worked with a group called Inclusive Minds in the UK as we developed the illustrations to help us out. Inclusive Minds helped check that our representation of people, particularly those with disabilities, was accurate and positive. For example, we discussed at length the best way to represent a child who might be on the autism spectrum, and decided to include a child on the playground who is happily absorbed in playing alone (see above) — an image that readers can interpret as they wish.

But inclusivity in picture books doesn’t start and end with people! In the illustrations on the left, you’ll see that we also added accessible equipment to the playground, a hearing aid loop sign to the library and textured pavement to the sidewalks (used at intersections as an aide for people with visual impairments).

There’s Still Work to be Done

Despite all the talk about diverse books, there’s still SO far for us to go before the books on offer catch up with the narrative. As creator of books for children, I feel a tremendous responsibility as someone who has an amazing platform to reach children to create the diverse books that the industry and the world so desperately needs.

But more importantly, as a mother, I want to get my daughter off on the right foot. Children start building their concrete ideas about the world long, long before they can understand the abstract notions of diversity and inclusivity. I want to normalize diverse and inclusive depictions of the world so that they are a part of my daughter’s schema, part of her world from the beginning.

I’m sure many of you parents, educators and caregivers can relate! How has the issue of diversity in children’s publishing impacted your family and your life? I’d love to hear from you on social media! Use the hashtag #AllChildren to join the conversation!

And be sure to check out The Barefoot Book of Children, our new book that tackles issues of human diversity head-on with inviting artwork and an accessible text. We consider it the culmination of Barefoot’s mission to open hearts and minds. Share it with a child today, and do your part to change the world for the better!

About the Author

Kate DePalma
Senior Editor, Barefoot Books
Co-Author of The Barefoot Book of Children

As Senior Editor at Barefoot Books, Kate DePalma has helped develop dozens of picture books; Kate also writes picture books under her pseudonym, Sunny Scribens. She holds an M.A. in Classics from the University of Texas and is also a published poet and scholar.

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