Over the course of the past year or so, diversity in children’s literature has become one of the issues I am most passionate about. Driven by my nine-year-old son’s voracious reading habit, a slew of recent studies on how reading creates and nurtures empathy, and a depressing amount of evidence of the extreme lack of compassion in our society for people who are different from us, I’ve been searching out different characters, viewpoints and backgrounds in books for my kids, and been depressed at how difficult it sometimes is.
So when this article, Diversity: One Thing YOU Can Do Now started making the rounds on various accounts I follow recently, I knew I had to pick an action and take it. The most obvious action was the first one:
1) Adopt a classroom and send the children a book (or books, if you can afford it) every month to enrich and diversify their collection. For ideas on titles, check out The Brown Bookshelf, the CBC Resource Page of book lists, the book lists created for Pat Mora’s Día de los Niños programs, my own World Full of Color diversity database, SLJ’s list of culturally diverse books, Debbie Reese’s recommended lists (one of which is here) and any number of great lists that can be found online. This idea was shared by Crazy QuiltEdi blogger Edi Campbell. It’s so simple and so helpful an idea that it knocked my socks off. Just about anyone reading this post can do this, and spread the word. Gather friends together to sponsor an underserved school! Each friend adopts one classroom and donates a book a month.
I was in love! I ran it by my son, Jefferson, who liked the idea but was concerned that his teacher might not be comfortable with it, so I promised I would run it by his teacher before I did anything. I sent her a quick email, giving her lots of options in case she wanted some control over the process (and the contents of her classroom library), and was delighted when she loved the idea!
So that’s when the work began. I spent hours scouring the links and lists in the post, coming up with a shopping list I thought would be appropriate for my son’s third grade classroom. My son goes to a Chinese-immersion grade school, so I figured if any other background was well represented in their class libraries, it was that one. So my list was heavier on other backgrounds. Also, I wanted to make sure that my list wasn’t only about racial diversity, but reflected the fullness of the We Need Diverse Books mission: “We recognize all diverse experiences, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.” Finally, I wanted a mix of what are sometimes called “problem stories,” stories that are primarily about the challenges and struggles of living whatever identity the main character is, and more fun, adventure stories.
The shopping itself was a mixed bag. Of course, I knew as I made my list that I wasn’t paying any attention to publication dates, so it would be hard to predict which books might have some realistic probability of residing on my local bookstore’s shelves. And I did want to buy these all at the local bookstore. Both to support the bookstore financially and also to boost the signal that there is an audience for these books here. But as I started down the list, book after book was coming up as a miss. Before I could get discouraged, I decided to cut over to the graphic novel section, as I had predicted that out of all of the books on my list, El Deafo was the book most likely to actually be at the bookstore.
And I was right! I had originally intended to buy one book for the class a month, but as I held the book, I felt like maybe I was being a bit of a jerk to buy a book for his class in the name of “diversity” during African American History month that wasn’t about African Americans. So back to the chapter book section I went.
I still wasn’t finding anything on my list, but then I ran into Unstoppable Octobia May, which I recognized from “Are We Really Ready for Unstoppable Characters of Color?”, which was not on my list, but seemed difficult to resist once it was in my hands.
So, two books a month! Rather than one, which was fine with me because there were such a lot of books on that list and not many months left in the school year. I bought them, the bookstore wrapped them (I was buying one other book as a gift, and once the clerk started wrapping my books it was kind of awkward to get her to stop), and they went into Jefferson’s backpack to go to school.
Within a day or two, I had an excited email from my son’s teacher! She loved the books! And what’s more, she was choosing both of the books to read aloud to the class, once they were done with the book they were currently reading. Which raised the stakes a bit on my little experiment, but I’m trying not to obsess over. I will make Jefferson report on the books once they’re reading them, and let you know!
(All of this actually happened in early February. But it took me a month to post because I’ve gotten out of the blogging habit, I had to set up a new blog account, I took a trip across the country, and reasons. I’m actually getting ready to send in the March books soon. But I had to start the story at the beginning, right?)