According to the latest census, minorities now make up about 37% of the U.S. population, and we’ll be a “minority-majority” nation by 2043. Yet the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) calculates that 90% of books published over the last two decades are written by or about caucasian Americans. With so few books out there representing minority cultures, what’s a librarian to do? Plenty, according to Dr. Katie Cunningham, Assistant Professor, Manhattanville College in this must-read blog post by publisher Lee & Low Books: “It is librarians who are the scholars of children’s literature and should be seen as tremendous resources within school and local communities.”
So how can we cultivate diversity in our libraries?Talk the Talk
We librarians love to talk books--we do it everyday. There are some books where race and setting and culture are an integral part of the story. If I were book-talking Duncan Tonatiuh’s picture book Dear Primo: A Letter to My Cousin, I might say:
Two cousins, Charlie and Carlito, have never met; one lives in the U.S. and the other lives in Mexico. Through their letters to one another, they discover that even though they do things in different ways, they are more alike than different. Would I hand this book to a kid from Mexico? Most likely. What about a kid who’s never traveled out of his or her hometown? Again, most likely yes. Spanish-speaking children will be thrilled to see Spanish words sprinkled throughout the text, and non-Spanish speakers will likely be excited to learn some Spanish words. But aside from the obvious cultural connections, I’d also hand it to a teacher who’s planning a lesson on letter-writing, or a unit on North American geography. I’d talk it up to the grade-level team who is teaching about communities, family, or transportation.
But other books that feature diverse characters have nothing to do with race. We’d never open a book talk about Katherine Patterson’s Bridge to Terabithia by saying, “This is the story of two white kids who...”
The main character in Mike Jung’s Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities is Vincent Wu--superhero fan and all-around nice kid. Here’s how I might book-talk this one:
Vincent, president of the Captain Stupendous Fan Club, has been noticing lately that his favorite superhero is less than super--he’s losing battles that should be cake, and now his bumbling performances are threatening the safety of Copperplate City. Vincent is determined to help, but stumbles when he discovers that his favorite superhero is actually Polly, his secret crush. Race doesn’t factor into this funny, charming middle grade sci-fi tale at all. Would I hand this to a Chinese-American kid? Yes, if he or she likes humor, sci-fi, and a bit of romance of the non-mushy variety. Would I hand this to a Chinese-American kid who asks for historical fiction recommendations? No. This book isn’t for all Chinese-American kids, just like Bridge to Terabithia isn’t for all (or only) white kids. Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities is for kids who love this genre, or for readers who gobble up graphic novels and are willing to branch out to stories with more text.
Digital Curation Many teachers would like to use more diverse literature in the classroom. But with a brand new class each year, it’s easy to fall back on read-alouds and literature circle picks that have worked in the past. As librarians, we can make our colleagues aware of the lack of diversity in children’s literature and invite them to be advocates of variety. One way to do this is to make resources easily available to them. I use Livebinders (www.livebinders.com), a virtual collection of resources formatted much like a physical binder with tabs and subtabs. I can imbed my binders in the library link of our school’s homepage, or share the link with staff only. Here’s an example of one binder I’ve started to put together that contains resources for teaching middle grade books about the immigration experience in the U.S.: http://www.livebinders.com/play/play?id=821829 . For each book, I’ve created a tab for authors’ websites, any teaching materials or curriculum guides, interviews, book trailers--anything that teachers might use with their students.
As Dr. Cunningham reminds us in the aforementioned Lee & Low interview, “It’s time for teachers, parents, and librarians to take stock of the the books they are reading aloud and putting in children’s hands and critically question whether the books they read represent our increasingly diverse society.” As librarians, we can begin with our own teetering to-be-read piles. What’s in yours?
Guest Blogger InfoNatalie Dias Lorenzi is an elementary school librarian in Fairfax County, Virginia and the author of Flying the Dragon, a middle grade novel for children (Charlesbridge, 2012). This fall she’ll be presenting at the Virginia Association of School Librarians (VAASL) Annual Fall Conference in Williamsburg, Virginia and at the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) 16th National Conference in Hartford, Connecticut as part of an author panel called Rising to the Global Challenge: Literature as a Tool for Creating World Citizens. Learn more at www.nataliediaslorenzi.com or follow Natalie on Twitter @NatalieLorenzi