Varian Johnson: Diversity for Our Youngest Readers

Guest Post by Austin Author Varian Johnson

This is the fourth week in a series of author guest posts about diversity in children’s literature and the BookPeople Modern First Library initiative. For more about BookPeople’s Modern First Library initiative, and for more recommendations of wonderful new and classic picture books to read, visit

Previous posts in this series:

Meghan G., Kids book buyer: Introducing BookPeople’s Modern First Library
Chris Barton: A Modern First Library List
Chris Barton: Loved, valued, unique? Yes. Center of the universe? No.
Cynthia Leitich Smith: Books as mirrors
Cynthia Leitich Smith: This book is for you
Liz Garton Scanlon: Soul reflecting 101
Liz Garton Scanlon: Fear No Difference
Liz Garton Scanlon: All the World Is All of Us
Don Tate: When I Began to Read, I Began to Exist
Don Tate: Maybe It’s Just Plain Fate


Diversity has always been important to me, but because I primarily write middle grade and young adult fiction, I usually focus on diversity and inclusiveness for older age ranges. However, once my first daughter was born, I became acutely aware of the need for diverse books for our youngest readers.

varian johnson guest post

Children of color are often the subject of horrible stereotypes in literature, television, and film. I wanted my daughter’s first images of African-American children to be positive—to be a representation of her as a real person, not a stale, clichéd stereotype. I wanted her to see kids like herself doing the normal activities that constituted our day-to-day lives.

That’s why I love books such as Uh-Oh by Rachel Isadora and Please, Baby, Please by Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee, illustrated by Kadir Nelson. These books are beautiful, powerful and much-needed representations of young African-American kids running, playing, laughing and learning. Likewise, I wanted her to experience books that reflect other diverse backgrounds. Books like All Fall Down and Tickle, Tickle, both by Helen Oxenbury, that showcase kids of various ethnicities doing what they do best—just being kids. I know it’s important for my daughter to see this, and it’s important for other young readers to experience this as well.


Varian Johnson is the author of four novels, including The Great Greene Heist, a Publishers Weekly Best Summer Book of 2014. His novels for older readers include My Life as a Rhombus, named to the Texas Library Association Tayshas High School Reading List and the New York Public Library “Stuff for the Teen Age” list, and Saving Maddie, a Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s Book.

Varian was born in Florence, South Carolina, and attended the University of Oklahoma, where he received a BS in Civil Engineering. He later received an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Varian now lives outside of Austin, TX with his family.

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