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Use of children's books

Students and adults in general are used to academic learning based on lectures, academic texts and intellectual exercises in which emotions are rarely directly addressed or meant to be a part of the learning process. And yet there are many issues relating to personal and group identity, a sense of belonging, the meaning of ‘home’, social and political topics especially relating to prejudices, minorities and immigrants, which arouse deep emotions and are potentially explosive in the classroom. Students training to work directly with people, such as teachers, educational advisors, psychologists, social and community workers and others need to confront and reflect upon their attitudes and feelings on such issues as part of their professional training in order to function effectively in a multicultural society. The use of children's books in class can be a useful and effective way to promote self-reflection, productive group discussions and a deep understanding of the complexity of these issues.


Why use children’s books?

Many children's books are about much more than just simple naive children's stories. Most of these stories deal with universal social themes, such as friendship, solidarity, or interpersonal help and support. Not infrequently, they also contain hidden criticism of social conditions, such as traditional role models, and refer to essential questions of human coexistence. Students are often surprised when asked to read books written for young children but the resulting discussions are very profound nd meaningful, leading to significant insights. This is because children’s books tell stories that are easy to relate to, describe people from different parts of the world, each coping with their own unique surroundings, problems and realities, and yet the themes are universal: the legitimacy of being who we want to be, the dissonance between self-identification and society’s perpetual labels, the harmful effects of bias, prejudice and racism, the basic human desire for a safe home and a loving family, and how in different contexts each one of us can be ‘the other’. Children’s books make the strange familiar, refute stereotypes, create empathy, make the presence of ‘the other’ legitimate, create both self and other awareness, and act as cultural bridges which provide a solid foundation for talking about all these issues.


Organizational requirements, equipment and materials:

  • It is necessary to have enough space so that the students can work in small groups.

  • Choose the books according to the topics you wish to cover.

  • Students need enough time to read the texts and have a discussion (at least 20-30 minutes).

  • Students are divided into groups of 3 or 4 people, each group receives a book or text exert with questions to discuss. In the plenary session each group presents the main points which arose in their discussion

  • The context in which the books were written and who wrote them may also be relevant, including a discussion of who these books are intended for and where to find them, often reflecting the balance of power in society (for example how many books do you know from your childhood with dark-skinned characters? Female heroes? Immigrants and refugees? Handicapped children?).  


Approaches to securing the access and the collaboration of the students:

At the centre of the work with children's books is the process of reconcilement with their messages as a group-related reflection process. The basis for this is the creation of a safe space:

  • Students are asked to close their telephones and laptops.

  • The aim of the exercise is to reflect and discuss the questions raised from different perspectives, encouraging students to practice active mutual listening.

  • To make the classroom a safe place for open discussion, students are instructed to be respectful when expressing opinions.

  • Understanding someone else's opinion does not invalidate my own opinion or necessarily mean that I must agree.

  • Feelings are personal and cannot be denied, recognition does not require consent. 

  • We talk about ourselves and not about or in the name of another.

  • We avoid generalizations, there are no group representatives here, only people.

Through discussion during the lesson students will discover that what is normal and acceptable to one group of people may be abnormal and unacceptable to another group of people. Understanding cultural logic and context can neutralize the initial gut-reaction, enabling professionals to find creative solutions to complex problems that arise in the field.


Implementation process:

Working with children's books can be applied in different contexts: with students in academic courses, with professionals in training for cultural sensitivity, cultural competence and context awareness, and with migrant groups. The objectives of the work may differ from group to group and these objectives determine the actual format of the activity as well as the books chosen and the questions for discussion. In general, if the group itself is diverse, the discussion becomes very interesting, as many different perspectives and examples are expressed.


Outcome of the workshop:

Through the (re-)reading of children's books in a university context, students become sensitive to the potency of children's stories. Often, they will check their personal libraries for representations of diversity and become aware of the direct or indirect messages and values that literature and films, which often use stereotypes, convey to children. The results are different for the different groups who read children's books:

  1. Students reinterpret the overt and covert messages and values depicted in children’s stories.

  2. Books with stories from different cultures act as an opportunity to exchange stories and meanings between different cultural groups. This process enhances cultural sensitivity, cultural competence and context awareness about migrant groups.

  3. In training professionals, the experience encourages using creative methods to find ways of making their services more accessible and/or effective for different cultural groups. For example, they may choose to use children’s books for educational or therapy purposes.

  4. In working with immigrant groups parents are encouraged by this encounter to tell their own stories to their children, stories they previously felt were irrelevant to their children’s lives in the new setting. The discussion often raises issues parents feel strongly about and may provide them with practical solutions to some of their daily dilemmas.


Examples for use of children's books:

  • What is My Name and Who Am I? by Naomi Shmuel[1]


This book describes how an Ethiopian baby is given many names by all the members of her extended family. The story is about changing names and acquiring more identities through cultural transition.

Questions for the group:

  • Are your own names representative of a certain time or place?

  • How do you feel about your name? Does it represent you?

  • In your opinion, what is the connection between a person’s name and their identity or sense of belonging?


  • Brown Daniel by Naomi Shmuel[2]


Daniel explains to his classmates why he and his father are brown, and describes his father’s childhood in a small Jewish village in Ethiopia and his long and difficult journey to Israel.

Questions for the group:

  •  How did you feel when you read the story?

  •  To what extent do you think Daniel’s experience is representative of what dark-skinned children experience in pre-school/school?

  •  How do you think educators and parents can help children like Daniel?


  • The Tree of Life by Naomi Shmuel[3]


An allegorical story where the tree represents the family and uproots. The tree struggles to dig in roots and feel at home in the new pasture but is devastated to see its flowers changing beyond recognition. It is hard for the tree to accept the new flowers and come to terms with change.

Questions for the group:

  • Are the dilemmas and tensions between parents and children reflected in the story unique to immigrants and refugees or universal?

  • How might you use this book in a counselling meeting with immigrant parents or for educational purposes in a classroom?


  • I Am Poem by Rawia Hayik



Literary approach to self-description, self-perception and external perception: By answering questions about the perception of the environment, one's own feelings, wishes, hopes and fears, the self is presented to the outside world for others. In this way people can quickly get to know each other on a deeper level and find common ground that connects them beyond culture and religious affiliations.


  •  Center vs. Periphery: Feeling In Between by Rawia Hayik








People with a history of migration often live in different worlds. They are still connected to their country of origin in many different ways, but at the same time they face the challenge of finding their way around in a new country while at the same time maintaining their own cultural values and traditions. They therefore often feel in between. This applies to their emotional state. But it can also be literally reflected in their spatial living situation. Related inner and social conflicts and challenges are the subject of this lesson.

In this context, this task is exemplary for working with students:

Write “Post It Thoughts” on the story: Write quotes from the book on Post-It notes and add your thoughts underneath each quotation. You can connect it to your life.



Brindley, R., & Laframboise, K. L. (2002). The need to do more: Promoting multiple perspectives in preservice teacher education through children's literature. In: Teaching and Teacher Education, ( 18/4), 405-420.‏

Leahy, M. A., & Foley, B, C. (2018). Diversity in Children’s Literature. In: Journal of Educational Research, (5/2), 172-183.

Prater, Mary, A. (2006). Teaching Students about Learning Disabilities through Children’s Literature. In: Intervention in School Clinic, (42/1), 14-24.


Useful websites:

Dr. Naomi Shmuel’s website:  Diverse Children’s Books:

Website of Dr. Rawia Hayik´s course "Migrants and Minorities in Children’s Literature":

Articles about Diversity in Children’s Literature:


Name of the Workshop: Academic workshops with children´s books

Facilitator of the Workshop: Dr. Naomi Shmuel


Name of the Workshop: Migrants and Minorities in Children’s Literature

Facilitator of the Workshop: Dr. Rawia Hayik



[1] Published by the Hippy Program (Etgar), The Institute for Advancement of Education, Hebrew University Jerusalem.

[2] This was the first children’s book in Hebrew to feature a brown-skinned child. Published by Modan.

[3] Very useful in parent groups with immigrants, published by the Hippy Program (Etgar), The Institute for Advancement of Education, Hebrew University Jerusalem.


© Diana Hnout

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