Every year during the first week of March, without fail, schools across the country celebrate Read Across America (RAA) Day/Week and feature Dr. Seuss. RAA Day falls on his birthday, March 2. While the National Education Association (NEA) did originally feature Seuss, they have stopped. In 2017/2018, the NEA shifted to focus on “celebrating a nation of diverse readers.” (You can read about that here).
Dr. Seuss’s work has been shown to be highly problematic, particularly the stereotyping and dehumanizing of people of color. If you have small children or follow issues in children’s literature, none of this is new to you — or I’m hoping it’s not. If you haven’t been following this issue, this article is a good place to start and brings up some good questions and points to explore.
But despite the research and conversations year after year, none of that has stopped countless schools and preschools from making the day and week a Seuss-filled spectacle (and more pointedly, never talking about or acknowledging the problems in his work — if his books are read, let’s have these conversations, too). But in the interest of purposefully following the theme of the day/week — celebrating diverse readers — here are some picture books to read instead of Dr. Seuss that actually reflect the NEA’s mission of celebrating a nation of diverse readers.
We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom and Michaela Goade
This gorgeous book won the 2021 Caldecott Medal, but that’s just one reason to read this picture book. Not only are the illustrations lush and colorful, the prose tells the story about how important water is and the environmental dangers that are present. When a black snake threatens to damage her water, a young girl — a water protector — knows she has to take a stand. This book is written in a way that is easy for young kids to understand, and is a great way to introduce them to the importance of clean water and environmental justice.
I Talk Like a River by Jordan Scott and Sydney Smith
This #OwnVoices picture book tells the story of a boy who struggles with speech, especially at school, because of his stutter. He takes a trip with his father to one of his favorite places, the river, where he finds comfort and learns to find his voice again. Having a child with a language disability, it’s hard to find books about this, and this one is one of our favorites.
Amy Wu and the Patchwork Dragon by Kat Zhang and Charlene Chua
If you liked Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao, check out this follow-up. Amy has to make her own dragon for art class, and when she makes hers, her classmates tell her it’s not a real one. When she tries to make a dragon that looks more like everyone else’s, none of them feel right to her. After talking with Grandma, Amy decides to make a new dragon that is all her own.
Sulwe by Lupita Nyong’o and Vashti Harrison
I am in love with this book. The storytelling, the illustrations, everything. A story about colorism and confidence, this is one we return to again and again here at my house. Sulwe has skin the color of midnight, much darker than everyone she knows. All she wants to do is be lighter, because she thinks it would make her beautiful — until a magical shooting star tells her the story of Night and Day, and shows her that beauty is more than your skin. Nyong’o does not minimize colorism or how painful it is, and her prose is direct — which makes this a powerful, important book.
The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family by Ibtihaj Muhammad, S.K. Ali, Hatem Aly
Faizah’s super excited for the first day of school — and to make things even more exciting, it’s her older sister Asiya’s first day of hijab. Her hijab is a beautiful, deep blue that reminds Faizah of the ocean. At school, though, some kids say mean things about her sister and don’t think it’s exciting or beautiful. Faizah remembers what her mother told them, and figures out how to share the beauty and strength of hijab with others. Not only is this a story about living your faith and standing up to ignorance, it also showcases sisterly love in a subtle and tender way.
Queen of the Hanukkah Dosas by Pamela Ehrenberg and Anjan Sarkar
In this story, a multi-cultural (Indian and Jewish) family celebrates Hanukkah not with latkes, but with dosas! Sadie loves to climb, and climbs on everything, embarrassing her older brother. The family decides to have a Hanukkah party and prepares the food, including the dosas. When they accidentally get locked out of their house while the food is cooking, Sadie helps to save the day (and the dosas). The book is delightful, and at the end, there’s even a recipe for dosas so you can make your own.
Like the Moon Loves the Sky by Hena Khan and Saffa Khan
This story, with prose inspired by the Quran, illustrates a parent’s love for their child. It is the story of a Muslim family, showing snapshots of their lives, and reassuring the child that they are loved unconditionally. It’s a lyrical book that’s perfect before bed or naptime because of the calming and reassuring messages, with warm colors and illustrations.
Stella Brings the Family by Miriam B. Schiffer and Holly Clifton-Brown
Stella has a Papa and a Daddy, along with lots of other people who love her very much. But when her teacher announces that the class is having a Mother’s Day party and tells everyone to bring their moms, Stella realizes she doesn’t have one. Her friends tell her to bring everyone who loves her, but she isn’t sure. This is a great book and an important reminder that not everyone has a family that consists of a mom/dad dynamic, and the ways this can show up in the classroom. Most importantly, it shows that family is what you make it, and that’s what matters most.
Dreamers by Yuyi Morales
Morales writes about her own immigration story in this picture book, filled with beautiful mixed-media illustrations that will have you poring over the pages again and again. She came to the U.S. with her infant son in 1983, and this is her story of exploring an unfamiliar place, finding spaces you love, and building your dreams. At the end of the book are lists of books that inspired her, as well as information about the artwork she created for the book.
All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold and Suzanne Kaufman
This picture book follows a classroom through a day at school. What I love about it is the sheer diversity of the illustrations. In the class, there are disabled children, children wearing hijab and kippot, children of all different races, and children with different kinds of family structures. None of these things are what the book is about, however: they are just part of who each child is. The book reiterates that no matter what, all are welcome in this classroom, and everyone is valued.
Eyes That Kiss in the Corners by Joanna Ho and Dung Ho
In this book, an Asian girl realizes that her eyes look different than those of some of her classmates: their eyes are round, with long eyelashes, but hers are like that of her family: eyes that kiss in the corners, not round. She looks at her mother, her grandmother, her sister, and learns to celebrate herself, loving the beauty of her eyes. The illustrations are vibrant and colorful and perfectly complement the prose.
Black is a Rainbow Color by Angela Joy and Ekua Holmes
This story starts off with a child listing the crayon colors in a rainbow, noting that their color is black, and that there is no black in rainbows. The child starts to list where they find the color black, and slowly shifts into Black history and culture, noting how vibrant and important they are. The insightful prose is paired with richly colorful illustrations, and at the end of the book are notes about the historical figures mentioned and the significance of certain phrases used, which can be great conversation starters for older kids.
Julián at the Wedding by Jessica Love
In this follow-up to Julián is A Mermaid, Julián and his abuela go to a wedding — and he is IN the wedding! He even meets a new friend named Marisol. After her dress gets dirty from playing outside, Julián offers her his shirt to wear, leaving him to style his purple suit in a new way. The colorful illustrations against the brown paper bring the prose to life, providing a vibrant background for an inclusive story about love, gender expression, friendship, and family.