Guest Post: Finding Joy and Comfort in Picture Books: Celebrating Diversity with Teens

Two picture book covers. The Name Jar and A Day with Yayeh

Today we welcome guest blogger Deborah K. Takahashi. She’s a librarian, author, YALSA blogger, and a youth mental health advocate. We appreciate hearing her ideas about the use of picture books with teens. 

For high school educators and teen librarians, encouraging young people to read is an important aspect of the job. Whether it’s fiction, nonfiction, comics, or manga, reading sparks imagination, joy and provides a healthy outlet for young people to express themselves. Along with reading stories, interacting with the words and the story is just as important. During adolescence, teens have reached an incredible milestone in their development where 80% of their brain has fully developed.¹ Although their brain is mostly developed, the frontal lobes of their brains have not caught up with their physical development. While adolescence is difficult for young people, it’s an exciting time for educators, advocates, mentors, and librarians.

The title on this book cover is My Papi has a Motorcycle. A young girl wearing a motorcycle helmet featuring a unicorn on the side is on the back of a motoracycle. She's wearing glasses and is smiling while holding onto her fatherSince reading can be used in different ways, books, specifically picture books, are an incredible tool to build critical thinking skills. Although some teens will see this as “lame,” this activity  gives teens an opportunity to practice these skills that’s not intimidating. In fact, some teens may be delighted to re-read a book they read as a child. Given the current political, economic, and social climate, teens are not only living through a pandemic, they have been forced to adjust to a reality that has robbed them of valuable life moments and experiences that many adults have already experienced. In addition to the chaotic world they are growing up in,  teens are bombarded with a plague of misinformation via mainstream media and social media. As educators and librarians, not only is it part of the job to demonstrate critical thinking skills teens need to thrive, this important task can be done with a little creativity and fun. The title is Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut. On this book cover a boy is standing with his chin up and has a new haircut. There are a few drawn gold crowns in an arch above him in the style of the artist Basquiat

One topic that teens have been hearing and seeing in the media is Diversity, which is a subject worth exploring using picture books. Again, some teens may roll their eyes at this activity, this is a great introduction to approaching texts with a critical eye while working with their peers. For this particular activity, provide groups with a picture book and ask them to read it aloud and break the story down in parts and ask them to identify the central problem of the story, discuss what issues led to the problem, and develop  solutions to solve the problem.  The best part of this activity is there is no right or wrong answer. With all readers, life experiences have a huge influence on how they interpret their world and problems that are presented to them.  More importantly, teens will have the opportunity to express their own opinions and, through respectful dialogue, come up with a consensus on what the author may be trying to convey to readers.  

A woman has a young child in one arm and a bowl full of fry bread in the other on this book coverWith Diversity, this activity not only draws on the students’ individual experiences, it also allows teens to address their own bias and misconception of Diversity. Moreover, this activity will empower teens to talk about an issue that is important to them as they have grown up in a world surrounded by peers from different ethnicities, religions, identities, and abilities. By asking teens to look at the text with a critical eye, teens are able to discuss an important issue as recent events have conveyed the need for reforms in regards to Diversity. In addition, teens can also discuss another aspect of picture books, which are the illustrations as well.  The book cover says Alma and How She Got her Name. A small bird is perched on the letter M. Alma is smiling and glancing up at the bird.

Here’s one fact worth mentioning to students: unless the author of the picture book is an illustrator, the author does NOT have the option to choose their illustrator. Interestingly enough, illustrators are selected by the publishers who purchase the manuscripts.  According to The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), “The editor who purchases your picture book manuscript or the art director at that publishing house will ultimately choose the illustrator.” In other words, authors have no idea who will illustrate their book. This approach will encourage students to take a closer look at the illustrations to see if they match the author’s vision.   

Here’s a list of questions for groups to think about and respond:

  • What does the term Diversity mean to you? Does this book do a good job representing the term “Diversity”
  • Why is it important to have diverse books? More importantly, why is it important to have diverse books for young children?
  • Is it important to have books featuring characters from different cultures? Why? 
  • Compare the text and illustrations? Are there any similarities or differences? 
  • Do you think the illustrator interpreted the author’s story well? If so, why or why not?
  • Did the illustrations impact the story in a meaningful way? 
  • Did you identify with any of the characters? If so, how does it make you feel?
  • As you read the text, did you encounter any bias from the author or illustrator? 
  • Did this book teach you anything about your own bias?
  • If there is one thing you took away from this book, what is it? 

Title on this book cover is Mixed Me! A young boy with a large reddish afro is smiling and glancing up and to the side. While this activity can be approached as a group, some of these questions may make students feel uncomfortable. Always preface that teens are welcome to share if they want; otherwise, encourage teens to write their responses down in a journal or notebook for them to look back on. While responses are important, the goal of this activity is for teens to engage in thoughtful and respectful dialogue. At the crux of this activity is the goal to encourage teens to think and express themselves in a meaningful way to develop other valuable skills such as empathy, compassion, and the courage to stand up against injustice. Even as an adult, picture books still provide me with so much joy because they produce simple, yet powerful messages. The same experience can also occur with teens.

Here is a list of topics and books that will elicit great conversation:

Mixed Race Americans:

African Americans

Asian AmericasYoung girl with long dark flowing hair is smiling and holding a flower in one hand. She is in profile and her eye is round at the front near her nose and comes to a small point by her temple. There is a butterfly in the air above her hair. The title of the book is Eyes That Kiss in the Corners

Latinx Americans

Native American/Indigeouns Americans:

¹Edwards, “Deciphering the Teenage Brain,”

— Thank you again to Deborah K. Takahashi for sharing with us today.

Are there other picture books that you’d recommend for use with teens? Or if you’re a teen, are there picture books you’ve appreciated beyond childhood? Please share in the comments.