USING PICTURE BOOKS IN EDUCATION Unconscious Bias and Diversity


Early Years Teacher Elisabeth Kelly shines a light on how picture books are used in Early Years settings.



In Early Years Education we are working hard to help practitioners become even more discerning about the books/texts they share with children to ensure that they add to a child’s experience and help build a connected equitable society. We are starting to actively watch out for unconscious bias and be aware of the narratives that all aspects of picture books are reinforcing to our youngest children.



I recently ran a training course with Early Years Practitioners reflecting on what we considered to be quality picture books to share with children in our Early Learning and Childcare settings. Often, we reflected that we fall back on old favourites or popular books and authors, but I wanted to help practitioners question whether these were always the right choice for their families and communities.



We discussed a number of elements in picture books, physically looking through many books in the session, including vocabulary, learning language, rhyme, illustrations, plot and diversity. One of the discussions that caused ‘light bulb’ moments for practitioners was thinking about unconscious bias and diversity.



We reflected on what some of the subtle and not so subtle elements of picture books were saying to our children especially around gender, race and socio-economic groups. For example, thinking about gender, in a number of books we noticed that all fairies in the illustrations were female, all the ‘king’s soldiers’ were men, most predatory animals (even when being friendly!) were male characters, and often ‘softer’ seeming animals were female.


If we think of some of the old favourites, are women always portrayed as the caregiver, whilst a man would go out to work such as in The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr? Is this still the case in newer picture books? Is it always a woman at the school gates, as in Shirley Hughes’s Dogger?



Is it ever a Granddad, a Pappa? When these characters are animals, are we still upholding these narratives? Is it Baby Bear’s mother that makes his tea, packs his picnic, kisses him before he sets off on an adventure? It is a female Baby Bear that worries about a tiny cold mouse she meets, whilst her brother climbs a tree?



We have had many debates with Early Years colleagues about old favourites, and ‘traditional’ tales, and we value these as beautiful stories and part of some people’s heritage, but they need to be part of a broader offer that includes representations of all members of our communities.



Obviously, it is not just gender. We looked at portrayal of social groups in some of these picture books. Often this is subtly expressed, sometimes by the style of houses that are portrayed most often or the fact that families travel by car. If you are three and you live in a flat or travel by bus, could you begin to believe you way of life isn’t the right one? How many picture books can you think of where the characters live in flats? The New Neighbours by Sarah McIntyre is one of the few I am aware of.



As readers of picture books, we certainly need and want to see our modern communities portrayed in real and natural ways. Think Bus called Heaven by Bob Graham which through wonderful illustrations shows a multicultural community in a natural way. It is so important for children to be able to recognise themselves in the texts around them. Goodnight World written by Nicola Edwards and illustrated by Hannah Tolson helps children to understand people can speak all sorts of different languages in a subtle and natural way.



In the majority of picture books we looked at during our course, families were portrayed as man, women, child. There was only one, And Tango makes three written by Justin Richardson and Peter Parneff, and illustrated by Henry Cole, that suggested a different family make-up.
I know this is a growing area in the industry and things are changing. We would love to see different family make-ups, kinship carers, solo parenting, same-sex parenting as a norm not as a special picture book brought out once or twice a year in a rotation. We don’t want members of our societies to be represented in a token way either, but as the standard way of telling stories that reflect our society, as in the Lulu Loves Stories series written by Anna McQuinn and illustrated by Rosalind Beardshaw.



This also applies to dual language books. This are hard to source and are seen as a bit of a novelty. Yet they are so useful for children where English is not the main language spoken at home. The delight you see in a child who recognises their home language in their childcare setting is beautiful.



As one-off books perhaps these representations matter less (although we could definitely debate this further) but when our children are exposed to 5+ books a day, 5 days a week in our nursery settings, and the majority show them a certain way of life, cultural group or viewpoint around gender we are in danger of potentially upholding and propagating narratives of domination by one gender, class or race. We are also in danger of making members of our society and nursery communities feel excluded.



We are striving and actively working to provide our children with rich texts that show contemporary Britain in all its complexity and that allow all our children to recognise their lives, their homes, their families, and their language. Luckily there are some beautiful stories and books out there to share, but we would value more to ensure they are the norm in our settings not the exception.





Elisabeth Kelly is a Principal Early Years Teacher and writer from Scotland. She has published various adult poetry and has written her first children’s book, an adventure in urban nature to help children create a sense of place, as yet unpublished. She loves chocolate puddings and the change of seasons. She tweets @eekelly22 and her words can be found via

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