Recently, I wrote about the need for more diverse books. I shared how I pulled books off of my shelves that feature main characters from diverse background and then looked to see which of these books are about contemporary characters and issues. The pile of books meeting these criteria was incredibly small.
Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres. I absolutely love the way authors of this genre work their magic to carry readers away in a time machine to experience and understand events of the past. These talented authors make it possible for readers to step in the shoes of characters to see the world through their eyes. This important work builds a foundation for students to understand how the past shapes the future and the ways that social injustices begin and still thrive today. We can never have too many of these books.
However, similar to some of the issues spotlighted by those supporting the #OscarsSoWhite protests, it seems as if publishers as well as the academy, are content to limit the types of stories that can be told featuring or about people of color to stories mainly about the historical past. We need realistic fiction books that feature the lives of characters from a wide variety of backgrounds. We need more stories about diverse characters and their contemporary lives. We need all students to see themselves reflected in the stories they read in order to feel valued and that their lives matter. Therefore, we need everyone – teachers, parents, and students – not just those from diverse groups, to speak up and out about the need for books that reflect ALL of us.
As a long time classroom teacher and educator, I’ve found that my students, most of whom are White, are excited to read good stories, no matter who is featured on the cover and within the pages. My students are eager to learn about people from all backgrounds and experiences and to see the world through a variety of eyes. So what we have to ask ourselves is where does the resistance to multicultural books truly come from? And more importantly, how can we break down these barriers?
Wednesday, January 27 is multicultural book day. We can thank the great work the pioneers of this day are doing to bring attention to the importance of celebrating diversity in children’s literature. Let’s all join their efforts not just on this day, but also on the days following.
Here are some ways to help raise awareness:
- Use the hashtag #ReadYourWorld and #diversebooks to share the terrific multicultural books you and your students love. Let’s flood twitter with recommendations for great books that are reflective of our diverse world.
- Tweet publishers who are publishing multicultural books and the work of diverse authors. Let’s show them that we are purchasing these books and that our students want to read them.
- Use January 27 as an opportunity to evaluate your classroom libraries, reading units, and to actively think about the ways you can promote diverse books. Check multiculturalchildrensbookday.com for recommended titles and resources. Borrow these books from your school or local libraries to use immediately. Hold onto a list of your favorites to order for your classroom and/or ask your school librarian to order them for the school.
- Our students’ voices are the most powerful influencing factor about books. Make students aware of the lack of multicultural books and ask them to join the campaign. Ask them to write about the books they’re reading featuring diverse characters and why they love them. Let’s send these letters to publishers so that we can begin to address this persistent gap in children’s literature.
In order to prepare students to responsibly and compassionately participate in a democratic society, reconceptualizing curriculum in ways that are inclusive of diversity is key. Multicultural books offer students alternative ways of understanding issues and viewing the world.
Sonja Cherry-Paul is a member of the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award Committee. She has been immersed in reading wonderful books created by authors and illustrators who address themes related to social justice. The best part of this process is sharing these incredible books with her 6th graders and the insightful conversations they spark. She is co-author of Teaching Interpretation: Using Text-Based Evidence to Construct Meaning and Flip Your Writing Workshop: A Blended Learning Approach.