By Melissa Snider
Colter Elementary School Library
The literature of America should reflect the children of America.” –Lucille Clifton
Huyck, David, Sarah Park Dahlen, Molly Beth Griffin. (2016 September 14). Diversity in Children’s Books 2015 infographic. sarahpark.com blog.
As librarians and media specialists, we strive to build collections of print and digital materials that serve the information and literacy needs of our students and staff. Collection development choices are guided by many factors including curricular needs and student interest. We may also consider the backgrounds of our students; racial or ethnic diversity, or languages other than English commonly spoken in our schools.
According to statistics from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center from the University of Wisconsin’s School of Education, more children’s books are published each year about trucks and animals than there are books published about American Indian or African American characters. It can be challenging to locate titles reflecting the broad experience of what it means to be “American,” even when you’re searching for them.
All of our students deserve library collections that support their ongoing journeys of self-discovery, that help them know who they are, and who they want to become. I encourage you to consider these questions as you maintain your library collections.
Does my library collection offer both mirrors and windows?
- A mirror is a book that can reflect parts of a student’s own experience back to them.
- A window is a book that allows a student to walk in someone else’s shoes.
The demographics of your school are one piece of the puzzle to consider when developing your collection, but diversity is deeper than skin color. Every student comes with a unique perspective and identity based on their socio-economic status, religious beliefs, gender identity, abilities and disabilities, and much more. Even if your particular student body doesn’t have a lot of diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, or national origin, ensure that you have books to help students broaden their reading experiences.
If you do have a particular group of students that you’re keeping in mind as you make purchases and don’t know where to begin, visit weneeddiversebooks.org. Their resources tab includes a link called “Where to Find Diverse Books” that directs you to recommended booklists based a variety of criteria. This page also collects excellent blogs and articles that discuss diversity and multiculturalism, if you are interested in more about the topic.
Finally, visit the Children’s Book Council: Reading Without Walls Challenge to learn about National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature, Gene Luen Yang’s efforts to inspire young readers to read widely.
Am I recommending diverse books to other teachers?
Wyoming’s Indian Paintbrush Awards List this year included El Deafo, a semi-autobiographical graphic novel featuring a character with a hearing impairment, and Full Cicada Moon, a historical fiction novel in verse whose main character struggles to identify herself as something other than the sum of her racial makeup (Japanese and Black). Promote diverse reading experiences by using recommended book lists and awards.
Librarians are trusted and powerful resources in our schools. If a teacher asks for books about Women’s History Month, include titles that represent less well-known narratives, such as Sarah E. Warren’s Dolores Huerta: A Hero to Migrant Workers. If 6th graders are learning about the Revolutionary War, add books like Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains to your list. Encourage high school English teachers to branch out from the traditional canon and include “new classics” in their classroom reading, books that examine universal themes like love, loss, and coming of age from perspectives that challenge them to see the world from a different point of view. Remember that America’s history is one of diversity, and help ensure that this history is represented in our classrooms.
Many types of media fall into the trap of reinforcing a “single story” when it comes to marginalized cultures. For example, “the African American story is one of struggle,” or “all Mexican-Americans are here without documentation.” These are incorrect, dangerous, and damaging stereotypes that can be reinforced in literature. Be aware of harmful stereotypes in books, and weed these items from your collections. Add books that broaden the scope of stories told; and help students read a range of human experiences.
Just this month, I heard 4th graders use the word “racist” with no understanding of what it means, or the weight of the word they were wielding. These conversations are being played out in the adult political world, and they’re impacting our students. It’s critical that educators guide students to acquire a basic vocabulary when discussing race and ethnicity, and teach them to use it respectfully. One way to introduce these conversations is with literature.
How can I serve students of immigrant families?
This year we’ve had new students arrive from Jamaica, Myanmar, El Salvador, and Mexico. Some of these students speak English, some do not. Our school also has a large population of Mexican-American students who were born in the United States, but whose parents are first-generation immigrants. Some of these students feel upset and threatened by recent policy decisions from the Trump Administration, and are experiencing high levels of stress.
Library media specialists have a unique role to play when it comes to supporting student learning, especially for kids who come from immigrant families. It’s important for us to help students feel welcome in our schools and our libraries. We can provide them with reading materials that reflect their experiences as immigrants as well as books to help others develop empathy for those who have left their countries of origin. Additionally, we should have collections that help students develop English language proficiency once they’ve arrived.
Even if a child is born here in the United States, they often deal with issues related to immigration, especially if they’re one of the estimated 4.1 million children living in a household with “mixed status,” or in a family where at least one member is undocumented. Be aware of the complexities of immigrant students and their families, and use the recommended websites to read further about ways to support them.
It is our responsibility as educators to connect kids with books that both reinforce their own experiences and broaden their horizons. Consider your collections, and how they work to reflect and transport your students.
Recommended Websites for Collections that Serve Students from Immigrant Families:
At left, Melissa Snider teaching about “headings.” Snider has been an elementary school librarian in the Teton County School District for 8 years, with additional 5 years of public library experience in Wyoming and Massachusetts. She holds an MLS from Simmons College in Boston, and loves to teach, hike, and spend time at home with her husband and two young daughters, who also adore reading.