Let’s Talk About Diversity… with Melissa Iwai

As pretty much anyone who knows me will tell you, I’m passionate about my job. I devour children’s books, love the creative process of putting together programs, and can’t get enough of school outreach. The thing I love most, though, is the opportunity I have to promote diverse books, to offer children mirrors as well as windows.

There’s only one problem: As a white, cisgender, non-disabled individual, I’ve never personally dealt with a lack of representation in books. While I’m in no way saying librarians and teachers can’t recommend books featuring characters unlike themselves, I feel it’s important for the children and families in my library to hear about diverse books from people who have struggled – and in many ways still struggle – with a lack of representation. So, once a month I host a diverse booktalk where local authors and/or illustrators come to the library to share some of their favorite titles. The line-up for this year so far includes such talented voices in children’s and YA lit as Dhonielle Clayton and Ashley Woodfolk, Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, and Arvin Ahmadi.

Last month, author/illustrator Melissa Iwai came to 53rd Street Library to share some of her favorite diverse picture books. Melissa is the author of the recently-released Pizza Day and its predecessor Soup Day. She’s always tried to consciously illustrate diverse families, partly as a response to the lack of diversity she saw in the books she read as a child: “I never saw picture books with kids who looked like me. Maybe one or two, [but mostly old Japanese folktales]. It was never anything that related to my daily life as a Japanese-American.”

Because she’s an amazing human being, Melissa came prepared with a title list – complete with brief descriptions – to share with patrons. The list was quite extensive, so I’ve selected 10 titles to share below. All title selections and descriptions, as well as the resource and hashtag guides at the end, are Melissa’s.

Cover Photo of Mystery BottleMystery Bottle by Kristen Balouch (2006)

This book is written by my friend, Kristen Balouch, and it’s the only one I can think of that features an Iranian-American protagonist. It’s a beautiful story of a boy’s relationship with his grandfather, who still lives in Iran.

Cover photo of UmbrellaUmbrella by Taro Yashima (1958)

Umbrella features a little Japanese-American girl living in New York and her anticipation of finally using her new umbrella on a rainy day. It was originally published many years ago, and I’m sory I never saw it growing up; I only came across it as an adult.

Cover photo of No Kimchi for MeNo Kimchi for Me! by Aram Kim (2017)

I love this sweet story by my friend, Aram, about Yoomi’s quest to finally eat spicy kimchi like her big brothers and prove she’s not a baby. The characters are cats, but they clearly have a Korean heritage. It also features a really good kimchi recipe at the end of the story!

Cover image of Freedom in Congo SquareFreedom in Congo Square by Carole Boston Weatherford, illus. by R. Gregory Christie (2016)

This is a beautifully illustrated (Caldecott Honor winner) and moving story about the square in New Orleans where people of African heritage, both enslaved and free, danced and played music on Sunday afternoons. The intermingling of the different African, Caribbean, and European music led to the development of new styles, including jazz.

Cover image of Grandfather's JourneyGrandfather’s Journey by Allen Say (1993)

This book is just gorgeous; the paintings have such a quiet, calming energy. It tells the story of the journey the author’s grandfather makes to the US from Japan and of the similar journey the author later makes as an adult.

Cover image of Into the SnowInto the Snow by Yuki Kaneko, illus. by Masamitsu Saito (2016)

Just a simple, sweet story about the fun and excitement of playing in and experiencing snow – but I love that the main character is Asian for no specific reason. This is the kind of book I wish I had grown up with.

Cover image of Thank YOu, TreesThank You, Trees! By Gail Langer Karwoski and Marilyn E. Gootman, illus. by Kristen Balouch (2012)

This is a cute book about T’uv Shevat, a Jewish holiday celebrating the new year for trees. This publisher, Kar Ben, publishes many Jewish-themed picture books.

Cover image of I Love Saturdays y domingosI Love Saturdays y domingos by Alma Flor Ada, illus. by Elivia Savadier (1999)

This story is about a little girl and her visits to her two sets of grandparents – one on Saturdays and one on Sundays (domingos). Both sets of grandparents have very different cultural backgrounds but they share a love for their granddaughter. There’s a lot of Spanish works sprinkled in the text, which is nice.

Cover image of Sweetest KuluSweetest Kulu by Celina Kalluk, illus. by Alexandria Neonakis (2013)

Kulu is an Inukitut term of endearment, and Sweetest Kulu is a beautiful poem about all the different wild animals who visit the newborn bearing various gifts.

Cover image of All the Way to HavanaAll the Way to Havana by Margarita Engle, illus. by Mike Curato (2017)

This is a really fun book to read aloud. It’s about a young boy’s journey with his family from the country to Havana in their old, rattling car, Cara Cara. The illustrations really capture the warmth and beauty of Cuba.

Other Resources:

Hashtags You Should Know:

  • #weneeddiversebooks
  • #readyourworld
  • #multiculturalchildrensbookday
  • #diversekidlit

Head shot of guest blogger Kaitlin Frick
Photo of guest blogger courtesy of Ryan Frick

Today’s guest post was written by Kaitlin Frick. Kaitlin is a Senior Children’s Librarian with the 53rd Street branch of the New York Public Library. Aside from her regular programming, Kaitlin plans and implements a twice-yearly after-hours family event as well as a monthly author program focused on booktalking diverse titles for children and teens. She can be found on Twitter @UnheardMelodies or reached via email at kaitlinfrick@nypl.org.

Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position of ALA or ALSC

If you’d like to write a guest post for the ALSC Blog, please contact Mary Voors, ALSC Blog manager, at alscblog@gmail.com.


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