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Helping Your Kid Create Diverse Art

When they’re surrounded by white imagery.

Dreamy marker drawing my 4-year-old drew of me, her mama.

We love so many things about where we live, but the major downside is it’s over 90% white. We want our white-passing Jewish kid to understand she lives in a big, diverse world. We travel when we can afford to, but most of the racial and ethnic diversity our 4-year-old sees comes in the form of children’s books.

Shades of People (Shelley Rotner, Sheila M. Kelly): Happy kids and families can look lots of different ways.

We’ve read almost 1,500 books together so far, so we’ve seen a lot of good, and a lot of not so much. I seek out books with non-white protagonists, and they’re getting easier and easier to find, but the vast majority of children’s books still center on white characters.

Even books with anthropomorphic non-human characters fall into this trap of unconscious white supremacy.

Moon Rabbit by Natalie Russell

For instance, Moon Rabbit, an otherwise fantastic children’s book, refers to the white bunny as “Little Rabbit” and the brown bunny as “Brown Rabbit.” The rabbits are the same size, but the white rabbit is presented as the default and the brown rabbit described by color.

When I noticed this, I first started calling them “Little White Rabbit” and “Little Brown Rabbit,” then I asked my kid to make up names for the bunnies, and we read it with those names instead.

Unicorns are one of my kid’s current obsessions, so we’ve been reading all the unicorn books we can find.

My kid at her 4th birthday party!

My favorite unicorn book so far is A Unicorn Named Sparkle by Amy Young, where a curly-haired kid learns to love and care for a goat with one horn, even though that’s not the unicorn she expected.

A Unicorn Named Sparkle by Amy Young

Our latest unicorn read is Uni the Unicorn: A Story About Believing, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illustrated by Brigette Barrager.

Uni the Unicorn believes in little white girls!

Uni falls into the category of books I’ll read to her, but always with a discussion of what’s problematic. I leave it up to her:

“Do you want to quit reading this book, or do you want to read it and talk about why it’s problematic?”

So far, she’s always chosen to keep reading, then discuss.

The book has an endearing premise: what if there’s a unicorn out there dreaming that you’re real, the same way you’re dreaming about a unicorn? The problem is this book seems to be written just with white girls in mind.

The unicorn dreams of “little girls” rather than “little kids.” I point out to my kid how wonderful it would be if her male unicorn-loving buddies could read this book and see the unicorn thinking about them as well.

And then there’s this page above: crayons, markers, watercolors. My kid can relate. She loves to create art and fills page after page with her dreamy drawings.

But what do you notice about all the kids the unicorn is drawing? Every one is white. We see different colors of hair (all straight) and even different light skin tones (pinker, peachier), but all white.

I recently had to explain to someone why “flesh-colored” is not a great way to describe the peach crayon. He actually Googled it to try to convince me “that’s what the crayon’s called!”

We’ve come a long way, baby. But we can do better.

I picture children of color (and, in this case, every kid who isn’t a white girl with longish straight hair) seeing this picture and fearing that the magic isn’t for them. The unicorn is dreaming of little white girls. The unicorn isn’t dreaming of them.

I don’t want to pick on this book too hard. Many other books do race much worse.

We were gifted a book (about transportation) with 82 separate depictions of humans, each one with exactly the same beige skin. It was super-creepy.

I can’t remember the title, as we chucked that book immediately.

Uni does make an attempt: another page shows a diverse group of kids, so the illustrator definitely had good intentions.

Only the magical unicorn understands how hard it is to be white.

I also appreciate the proportions of the main human character, who looks recognizably like a child (rather than a Vogue model, like the characters in the Ladybug Girl series, for instance). Uni’s art is beautiful, colorful, inspires imagination.

I just want all kids to know that beauty and magic is for them.

So when I see a unicorn drawing a bunch of white kids, I want to make sure I tell my kid why it’s wrong. And I want to support my kid in creating more diverse art.

The ballet dancer on the bottom right is our dog.

My kid’s also super into ballet right now, and she asked me to draw some ballerinas for her. I drew the picture above with pastels (she helped with the coloring). She asked me why some of them had dark skin.

“Because people have all different shades of skin. Anyone can learn to do ballet.”

I believe art has the power to shape the way she sees the world and the kind of ally she grows up to be: the art she sees, the art she makes, the art she sees me make.

I drew this one (on the right) and she tried to copy it.

Her ballerina on the left, mimicking mine

So far, so good.

Are you promoting diversity in your kids’ art? Or have a children’s book you want to recommend? Let me know in the comments!