Recently, I attended a workshop and the following quote was displayed on the screen:
When someone with the authority of a teacher describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing. ~ Adrienne Rich
I wept quietly on the inside for several moments after reading this. I couldn’t help but think about all of the children I teach and all of the subtle, yet significant ways they may feel invisible as a result of the curriculum and particularly, the books we read.
Books literally surround my classroom. They’re on displays, on counter-tops, on magnetic shelves on the chalkboard, seemingly floating off of the wall on invisible shelves, in book cases, and in baskets. Surely, within this generous collection is a substantial amount of books that, as Rich states, describes a world that is inclusive of all of my students.
I returned to my classroom and began hunting through my library. I pulled books off of shelves, bookcases, and stands that feature diverse characters. I displayed them on the carpet. I went around the classroom twice, three, four times. The books facing up at me on the carpet represented only a fraction of the books in my classroom. Surely I had more. I didn’t.
I discovered it was easy to find racially and culturally diverse books within my collection of historical fiction. Historical fiction is an important and compelling genre. But how do children see the significance of their lives in the world today and in the future if the only reflection of themselves is from the past? What messages are children receiving as a result of our teachings, during, as Rich might argue, this naming of a world where some are included and others aren’t? Where are the contemporary books that help all children feel visible and valued?
We need more diverse books. We need more books that specifically spotlight the racial and cultural diversity that is reflected in our classrooms and in the world. The books we choose to celebrate in our classrooms send explicit messages to our students about who counts in the world and who doesn’t. The popularization of only those books that present a narrow landscape of the world occurs at the expense of the self-esteem and overall well-being of all of our children. We need to recognize less popular authors who are doing important work to include the lives of diverse characters in stories. We need to support them so that publishers know that yes, we will buy these books, too. An eye opening conversation about this topic occurred on twitter last week (#tcrwp hosted by @diversebooks). WeNeedDiverseBooks.org is working to raise awareness. Their mission is simple and clear: “A world in which all children can see themselves in the pages of a book.”
Adrienne Rich reminds us that as teachers we hold a powerful platform. And from this platform we have the power to include, affirm, and celebrate by making conscious decisions about the books we make available in our classrooms.
Sonja Cherry-Paul has been an educator for the past 17 years. She is a middle school English teacher and co-author of Teaching Interpretation: Using Text-Based Evidence to Construct Meaning and Flip Your Writing Workshop: A Blended Learning Approach. Sonja is a Jane Addams Children’s Book Awards committee member who is committed to celebrating authors and illustrators who address issues related to social justice.