“Ramadan? You have books about Ramadan? I celebrate Ramadan!” said a third-grade boy last May when I showed him our Ramadan display. His smile was contagious as he ran to the circulation desk with his two books. Watching how happy this Muslim student was discovering books that represented his culture, I saw first-hand how important diversity in literature is for children.
In Walter Dean Myer’s memoir Bad Boy, he writes, “In truth, everything in my life in 1951 that was personal and had value was white.” He then spent his writing career trying to change that. In 1986, in The New York Times, he wrote, “If we continue to make black children nonpersons by excluding them from books and by degrading the black experience, and if we continue to neglect white children by not exposing them to any aspect of other racial and ethnic experiences in a meaningful way, we will have a next racial crisis.” Unfortunately, twenty-eight years later, Walter Dean Myers wrote, in his 2014 New York Times essay titled “Where Are the People of Color?” things had not changed much. Out of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, only 93 were about minorities.
Last month, I attended the Summer Literacy Institute at Longwood University in Virginia. The focus of the two-day conference was “Diversity through Literacy.” Keynote speakers were Kelly Starling Lyons, founder of The Brown Bookshelf, Matt de la Pena, author of Newberry Medal book Last Stop on Market Street, and Ellen Oh, founder of We Need Diverse Books. This conference, once again, showed me the importance of every library having diverse books. All three of these speakers felt the sting of growing up in a country that does not embrace its diversity.
Matt de la Pena was a reluctant reader until he went to college. The book that hooked him was The Color Purple. It was the first book that gave him an emotional reaction. “Reading became my secret place to feel,” he said. As a child, Matt de la Pena lived on the border of Southern California and Mexico. During the week, at school in California, he felt that he was not “white” enough. When he would visit his grandmother in Mexico each Sunday, he felt that he was not “brown” enough. “No one had ever talked about what it was like to be mixed,” he said at the conference. This feeling was the inspiration for his novel Mexican Whiteboy, which explores what it is like to grow up biracial.
Ellen Oh had never read a book that correctly represented her Asian culture until she read The Joy Luck Club. (Even though Ellen is Korean American and The Joy Luck Club is about the Chinese culture, the story still resonated with her.) She said, “kids just want to read a good story.” Adults are the gatekeepers that put their beliefs onto children. As librarians, and gatekeepers, we need to make sure that our students have books to read that reflect ALL cultures in our world. As Ellen Oh said, “Stories teach us empathy where there was none before.”
Librarians have a voice in the children’s book publishing industry. When we plan displays this year and order books, we must analyze our collections and add diversity where it is lacking. Our reward is the smiles of our students when they discover their book. A book that resonates deep within, a book where they can see themselves as the main character, a book that says to them, “YOU belong! YOU are valued. YOU are a part of something.”
Author: Colleen R. Lee
Colleen R. Lee is a former middle school English teacher and Elementary Teacher. She is currently the Elementary Librarian at Greenfield Elementary School in Chesterfield County, VA. Follow her on Twitter @MrsLeesLibrary.