Opinion
Teaching Profession Opinion

5 Steps to Build a Diverse Classroom Library and Encourage Empathy

By Jennifer Williams — September 06, 2017 9 min read

The need to encourage empathy for others is being felt in classrooms across the country. Libraries can be key to facilitating these discussions and understandings. Jennifer Williams is a literacy specialist at Calliope Global, professor at Saint Leo University in the College of Education and Graduate Education, and member of the Board of Directors for the International Literacy Association. Be sure to join Jennifer for #Globaledchat on Twitter tomorrow, September 7 at 8pm ET to learn more tips and strategies. Just type #Globaledchat into the Twitter search box and join the conversation!

“Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself."—Mohsin Hamid

Collectively as teachers in schools of today, we are given the gift of spending our days with classrooms of children and witnessing their young life experiences. This gift affords us moments where students share with us their greatest joys and reasons for happiness, but also their fears and concerns and uncertainties. Reflective of our increasingly global and diverse world, our students are unique in every sense of the word—in culture and religion and race and disposition. Each student comes to us in our classrooms with different sets of backgrounds and passions and with diverse and distinct learning styles and learning needs.

With intentional practice and careful construction of the learning experience, we as educators can work to inspire and nurture thoughtful exploration of sensitive topics related to differences in our class communities—moving conflict to a place of shared experience and shifting discord and disagreement to much-needed dialogue and repair. We see that through exercises of self-reflection, perspective taking, active listening, and conscious awareness of differences, we can support our students (and ourselves) to challenge understandings both in responsive practices, such as deconstructing biases, as well as with constructive practices to build empathy. And, paired with activities of culturally responsive teaching, our classroom libraries can become safe spaces for the sharing of stories—serving as entry points for discovery of the unknown and of the unspoken.

By filling our classroom libraries with books that offer compelling storylines and diversity in topics, we as teachers can demonstrate to students that there is not a universal experience. Support for this is evidenced by the work and research of organizations such as We Need Diverse Books and Teaching Tolerance and as powerfully expressed by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her 2009 TEDTalk. Through a description of her experience growing up as a Nigerian student reading stories of children that did not look like her or come from a world like hers, she poignantly asserted that there is true danger in the showing of a single story. Offered with transcripts/subtitles in more than 46 languages, her talk titled “The Danger of a Single Story” has now been viewed by over 13 million people.

We can clearly see in our classrooms that there is not a single story, but that there is power and beauty in sharing many stories. As our students begin to construct their own narratives of self, we can support them by filling our classroom libraries with books of diverse characters that they can look to and within see themselves or those whom which they care.

Here are five steps to help you and your students to create a diverse classroom library. Thirty book titles are also offered for exploration below. Through purpose and intention, we as teachers and guides of learning can work to ensure that all perspectives are included in the conversations of our classrooms and that literature and the sharing of stories bring us all closer to a place of understanding, compassion, and empathy.

5 Steps to Creating Your Diverse Classroom Library

Step 1. The process of building a diverse classroom library is an intentional one that involves dedicated time and thought. Consider the students in your class and the topics important to your community that you want represented. Openly discuss with students that you are dedicated to building a diverse classroom library and share reasons why you feel this is important.

Step 2. Survey your students to see what books they would like to see in the classroom library, and create a visible criteria checklist for the class to help frame the decision-making process. Criteria could include points such as: characters from diverse backgrounds or cultures; settings in different countries; themes or topics that build on current social justice and global issues; inclusion of words in different languages; or stories written from more than one perspective. Provide question prompts to students and invite them to submit anonymous responses. Question prompts for students could include:


  1. What types of characters would you like to see represented in our books?
  2. What challenges does our community face that should be reflected in our classroom library? (“community” can be considered from any level: self, class, school, family, town, country, or world)
  3. What is one thing people do not know about you that you wish they did?
  4. Complete this sentence: I want to read a story about someone who _____________.

Step 3. Together with your students, take an inventory of the books you currently have in your classroom. Evaluate books in terms of both text and illustrations. Consider donating or storing books that do not meet your classroom needs or find ways to showcase titles that perhaps have been hiding in the back of shelves and deserve to be revisited. Build in time to allow students to share reasons they would select to keep or remove books from the classroom library. Revisit the criteria checklist and continue to make edits or revisions based on reflections and new thinking.

Step 4. Invite students to research books through online searches or school library visits. With new focus on searching for diverse books, students may discover books in their own home libraries or from family member recommendations. Welcome students to share book titles during group lessons and invite students to read excerpts or favorite pages to give other students previews of stories. Favorite and treasured books can be placed on display for all to see and review.

Step 5. Following the cooperative process of creating a final book list of titles with your students, consider creative options for funding. DonorsChoose, GoFundMe, and other funding platforms help connect classrooms with donors that want to help students by giving to school projects. The FirstBook organization also provides a marketplace of free resources and reduced-priced books with multi-cultural titles, a library of global stories, and selections focused on social-emotional learning. Consider creating an Amazon.com Wishlist of titles. The wishlist can easily be shared via a weblink that can directly connect parents or community members to book titles. Books purchased will be delivered directly to your school.

As you review books lists and titles, below are 30 books spanning Pre-Kindergarten through Grade 12 that would be wonderful additions to any diverse classroom library. Also, please share your favorite titles or pictures of your diverse classroom library on social media with the hashtag #globaledchat.

You can connect with Jennifer and Heather on Twitter.

Books for Lower Grades (preK-3rd)


  • Be a Friend
    Author: Salina Yoon
    Explored Topics: Self-Acceptance, Social Skills, Friendship

  • A Family is a Family is a Family
    Author: Sara O’Leary
    Explored Topics: Different Types of Families

  • I Am Jazz
    Authors: Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings
    Explored Topics: Gender Identity, Tolerance

  • Juna’s Jar
    Author: Jane Bahk
    Explored Topics: Multicultural Studies (Asian American Culture), Friendship, Culture, Family

  • Last Stop on Market Street
    Author: Matt de la Peña
    Explored Topics: African-American Culture, Multi-Generational Topics, Family, Urban Life, Hunger

  • My Name is Maria Isabel
    Author: Alma Flor Ada
    Explored Topics: Multicultural Studies (Puerto Rican Culture), Hispanic/Latino Culture, Importance of a Name, Self-Respect

  • One Green Apple
    Author: Eve Bunting
    Explored Topics: Immigration, Cultural Studies (Muslim faith), Self-Esteem, English as a Second Language

  • Pool
    Author: Jihyeon Lee
    Explored Topics: Shyness, Social Skills, Friendship

  • Red: A Crayon’s Story
    Author: Michael Hall
    Explored Topics: Identity, Self-Respect, Feelings, Friendship

  • Strictly No Elephants
    Author: Lisa Mantchev
    Explored Topics: Differences, Friendship
  • This is How We Do It: One Day in the Lives of Seven Kids from Around the World
    Author: Matt Lamonthe
    Explored Topics: Global Studies (Italy, Japan, Iran, India, Peru, Uganda, Russia), Culture, Point of View

  • Author: Jacqueline Woodson
    Explored Topics: African-American Culture, History, Family, Moving
  • Those Shoes
    Author: Maribeth Boelts
    Explored Topics: Poverty, African-American Culture, Friendship, Family

  • The Upside Down Boy/ El niño de cabeza
    Author: Juan Felipe Herrera
    Explored Topics: Bilingual book, Multicultural Studies, Hispanic/Latino Culture, Migrant Life
  • What Does Peace Feel Like
    Author: Vladimir Radunsky
    Explored Topics: Global Studies, Peace, Perspective

Books for Middle Grades (4th-8th)


  • Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire
    Author: Susan Tan
    Explored Topics: Asian American Culture, Multicultural Studies, New Baby, Family Life, Learning Differences

  • Flying Lessons & Other Stories
    Author: Ellen Oh, et al.
    Explored Topics: Short Stories, Interpersonal Relationships, Friendship, Family
  • Forget Me Not
    Author: Ellie Terry
    Explored Topics: Tourette Syndrome, Family Life, Dating, Middle School, Friendship

  • Ghost
    Author: Jason Reynolds
    Explored Topics: Friendship, Perspective, Sports, Identity

  • I Will Always Write Back
    Authors: Caitlin Alifirenka, Martin Ganda, and Liz Welch
    Explored Topics: Global Studies (Zimbabwe), Friendship

  • Author: Andrea Davis Pinkney
    Explored Topics: Global Studies (Sudan), Violence, Refugee Stories, Friendship, Family, Perseverance

  • Refugee
    Author: Alan Gratz
    Explored Topics: Courage, Survival, Nazi Germany, Refugee Crisis, Multicultural Studies (Syria, Cuba, Germany), Religion
  • Save Me a Seat
    Authors: Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan
    Explored Topics: Multicultural Studies (India), Bullying, Overcoming Shyness, Courage, Friendship

Books for Upper Grades (9th-12th)


  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
    Author: Sherman Alexie
    Explored Topics: Native American Culture, Death, Family, Race Relations

  • Authors: Jason Reynolds & Brendan Kiely
    Explored Topics: Race Relations & Racism, Violence

  • Everything, Everything
    Author: Nicole Yoon
    Explored Topics: Disease (Severe Allergies), Teenage Love, Friendship
  • The Hate U Give
    Author: Angie Thomas
    Explored Topics: Race Relations & Racism, Police Violence, African American Culture

  • Out of Darkness
    Author: Ashley Hope Pérez
    Explored Topics: Race Relations, Segregation, African-American Culture, Mexican American Culture, Perspective

Quote image created on Pablo.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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