#DiverseVoices: Lena Helmling (she/her)

At their best, children’s books provide insights into other worlds and pick up on children’s themes; they inspire imagination, impart knowledge and support language development.

Lena Helmling

Lena Helmling is a pedagogue and educational scientist. She has dedicated her professional career to education for more than 10 years. Her areas of specialization include anti-discrimination, language and communication, and developmental psychology.

In your opinion, what role do children's books play in early childhood development, especially at nursery age?

Most children love to immerse themselves in stories. At their best, children’s books provide insights into other worlds and pick up on children’s themes; they inspire imagination, impart knowledge and support language development. In addition, so-called dialogical reading aloud, in which, in contrast to traditional reading aloud, the focus is on conversation and interaction with the child, can provide strengthening relationship moments between adults and children, slow down everyday life and encourage the child to think for themselves in the sense of philosophizing with children. In addition, it often happens in the daycare center that children’s books are looked at together by several children, who then start talking about them. This gives the children the opportunity to practise conversational skills, such as listening and letting others finish, which is an important learning process in the context of social-emotional development. Looking at a picture book (together) or reading a story aloud is therefore a tremendously valuable support for children’s development on various levels.

Why do you think it is important for children's books to reflect diversity and how can this promote children's understanding and acceptance of diversity?

Children are diverse – and this also applies to their families and their way of life. On the one hand, children’s books should give children the opportunity to gain insights into and knowledge about new living environments. This can serve both to broaden perspectives and to take on an educational function. On the other hand, children’s books should reflect the reality of children’s lives and themselves in all their diversity. In this way, they experience recognition for themselves and their peer groups and receive the message “I am right, I am important!”. However, not all children are represented in the book collections of many daycare centers. And some children’s books contain hidden or open prejudices, stigmatize and discriminate, reflecting the power inequalities in our society. Diversity-conscious and anti-discrimination children’s books can therefore make a proactive contribution to anti-discriminatory and therefore diversity-conscious and inclusive educational practice, which ultimately benefits all children. This is because children, who can often identify positively with the protagonists depicted in the books, also use books as a source for their view of the world and people. This can promote dominance thinking and reproduce existing power relations. Instead, children’s books with diverse characters and stories that are sensitive to discrimination can contribute to respectful interaction between people.

Can you give examples from your professional practice of how diversely designed children's books have had a positive impact on children and the educational environment?

Your own book collection is diverse if it takes into account all aspects of diversity and all identity characteristics by which people can experience devaluation or disadvantage. This means that multilingual children’s books should also be included, and I myself worked as an additional specialist in a language daycare center. There we worked with an app that provides a variety of multilingual children’s books – with German “subtitles”. I can remember situations in which some children who came to the daycare center without any knowledge of German experienced wonderful moments with the professionals when they looked at a book together in the language that the children spoke and understood.

These moments create a feeling of being seen. The children experience that important parts of their identity, in this case “their” language, are present and welcome in everyday daycare. Such moments can provide security and contribute to a great sense of well-being and only where children feel safe, comfortable and welcome can they develop healthily.

What challenges do you see in the implementation of diversity-conscious literature in daycare centers and how can these be overcome?

I could imagine that some daycare centers find it challenging to completely review their book inventory and order new books due to time constraints. However, if you stick to a few criteria and take your time, this is a manageable task. When buying new books, you can also use some children’s book lists that are already available to download from the Internet. At this point, I would also like to recommend the children’s book media library of the Fachstelle Kinderwelten. MoreDiversity is also currently working on such a list and a corresponding workshop concept for daycare centers.

In my training courses for educational professionals, I also sometimes hear the fear that a diverse book collection would not be understood by some parents. It is important to inform parents from the outset about the opportunities that an inclusive educational approach offers for all children and that the right to protection from discrimination is a child’s right that must be respected.

Educational professionals also sometimes find it difficult to part with their own favorite books, even if this would be necessary from a diversity-conscious perspective. Depending on the book, separation is not always absolutely necessary in my view. A critical discussion with the children also offers a good opportunity to talk about discrimination and injustice.

What criteria should educational professionals take into account when selecting children's books in order to support prejudice-conscious and inclusive education?

Even if many book collections are not yet very diverse, they do exist: Children’s books that open up new perspectives, are aware of prejudice and are characterized by diversity, while addressing the children’s lifeworlds and topics. It is therefore worth taking a critical look at the existing book stock in your own institution and asking: Which books can we use to address certain topics? Which children can be found with their languages, celebrations, family forms, interests or outward appearances? And more importantly: Which ones don’t? Which books might even need to be weeded out or at least discussed critically with the children because they convey discriminatory images? More specific questions can be asked here: Which characters have (no) active role in the story? Who has to prove their worth in order to “belong”?

In short, every child should be able to find themselves in the books and at the same time be encouraged to broaden their own horizons. The books should help children to expand their emotional vocabulary, not contain discriminatory content, encourage them to think critically about discrimination and encourage them to stand up for justice. Of course, not every book has to fulfill every criterion, but they should do so as a whole. And very importantly: children’s books should also deal with just plain nonsense topics that make for funny moments – without discriminating, of course! The book “Alle haben ein Po” by Anna Fiske, for example, which many children really enjoy, is a good example of this.

How do you think engaging with diversity-conscious children's books can influence children's long-term thinking and behavior, especially in terms of their later social and professional interactions?

It is no coincidence who is (how) to be found in children’s books and who is not. Rather, it is an expression of social power relations. Children encounter these relationships not only in books, but in many different ways every day. For example, some children are more likely to belong to the dominant society than others because of the color of their skin, and this is also the case with the existing – or non-existing – diversity of protagonists in children’s books. This makes it all the more important to use the selection of children’s books to empower children who are less visible or even discriminated against due to certain identity characteristics and/or attributions.

In addition, all children benefit from a prejudice-conscious and discrimination-sensitive selection of children’s books, as they can be used to experience an appreciative approach to diversity, ultimately leading to respectful coexistence into adulthood.

And finally: Do you have a favorite children's book?

I find it difficult to answer this question with just one book. I would first like to mention a children’s book from my childhood that I can describe as empowering from today’s perspective. It’s called “Lena hat nur Fußball im Kopf” by Kirsten Boie and is about a girl who, as the title suggests, loves to play soccer. As I was a soccer-playing girl myself and this didn’t appear in any children’s book I knew, it really encouraged me to find myself there with my passion; in addition, but I only realized this when I read the book again as an adult, the content of the book can be used very well to talk to children (more of primary school age) about adultism and the pressure to perform.

A more current book that I would definitely recommend is “Mina discovers a new world” by Sandra Niebuhr Siebert and Lars Baus. It tells the story of how a child called Mina arrives at kindergarten. As Mina doesn’t speak German at the beginning, the book gives, in my opinion, great insights into the perspective and emotional life of a child who is initially not understood at nursery. It describes impressively and sensitively how everything feels strange and gray for Mina at first and how life in kindergarten becomes warm and colorful for her again after a time when she was able to gradually build trust through the empathetic behavior of the pedagogical staff.

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