Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Who's in your books? And what are they doing?

Maybe you've heard about the We Need Diverse Books movement that is making waves on Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook? It was triggered in part by a report from the Cooperative Children's Book Center on the consistent lack of ethnic diversity in fiction for young people.

Much has been written on why it's important that all children be able to see themselves - and others - reflected in books. I particularly like Christopher Myers' take on books as maps that are supposed to open up worlds of "boundless imagination" and yet, "children of color remain outside the boundaries of best background characters, and more often than not absent."

When was the last time you read a book for young people in which a child of color entered a fantasy world or solved a mystery? A book in which ethnic differences - specifically problems relating to them - weren't the primary reason for minority characters' existence?

Every year from the first week of school until winter break we focus in-depth on one cultural group during our K-3 storytimes. Instead of a scattershot approach, this focus gives students a deeper understanding of the region or culture. Frequently referring to maps, we cover folklore, nonfiction and fiction. In the past we have covered the Celtic countries, Latin America and Korea, among other locations.

A major goal of this unit is also to challenge stereotypes. For example, one year we focused on contemporary Native Americans - since so many children's books write as if Native peoples existed only in the distant past - and read books recommended in A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children for not being exoticizing or exploitative.

This year we are looking at African American heritage - from cherished folktales to stories of modern families who are recent immigrants. Although the history of slavery and the Civil Rights movement is very important, an overwhelming percentage of picture books about African Americans portray victims of oppression or focus heavily on a few well-known heroes. What kind of mirror does this hold up to young readers? And what map does it set down before them? 

I deliberately chose books that portray regular, happy families doing what regular, happy families do. We also read some set during the past in which ordinary African Americans show a sense of agency, rather than being either great heroes or downtrodden victims.

My hope is that by shifting the balance of the content of the books we expose children to, we can also shift some of their internal images and expectations.

Want to learn more? Come to the Parent Association meeting on December 5th, where I'll be talking about my summer grant in which I overhauled the book sets we use at our school! I'll also talk about how you can consider the books you read with or give to your children (of all ages) and the messages they may be sending.