“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” -Maya Angelou
I vividly remember the moment when I first encountered this startling infographic:
I started asking myself a lot of questions. In curating a classroom library, what experiences were becoming visible for my students? Were all of my third graders seeing reflections of their own lives in the books that filled our classroom? Were my students getting a chance to see the world through the eyes of people of different cultures? Races? Socioeconomic backgrounds? Genders?
According to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at UW Madison, only 14.9% of children’s books published in 2015 were about people of color. In 2016, that number jumped to 22%. While this shows progress in publishing, I wanted to explore whether or not my own reading was beginning to diversify.
Since the start of 2017, I have read 101 children’s books. 55 of those books were fiction, while 46 were nonfiction. To begin analyzing my own reading habits, I looked at representations of race and ethnicity in my fiction reads.
What I found was troubling. In the 55 fiction books, there were 62 featured characters. Nearly 70% of those protagonists were white. Only 9 protagonists were African or African-American. Another 9 protagonists were talking animals or objects. 6 characters were Latinx or Latinx-American. There were only 3 Asian Pacific or Asian Pacific-American protagonists. Out of the 62 protagonists in the 55 books, there were zero American Indian or First Nations characters.
I worry about the messages we send to children when we make it hard for them to find stories depicting the lived experiences of others. I worry about making children feel like their own experiences are unrepresented in the books that are available to them. I worry about the implications of being a teacher who has spent half a year reading fiction books in which 84.9% of the characters are either white, a talking animal, or a talking object. And while analyzing my reading habits opened my eyes to the lack of racial diversity in the fiction books I’ve read this year, I imagine the the findings would be similarly concerning if I examined representations of gender identity, religion, sexual orientation, or disability.
As a reader, a teacher, and a citizen of this country, I need to do better. I need to seek out books that tell the stories of people whose lives look different from my own. I need to use resources like We Need Diverse Books, the Coretta Scott King Award, and the American Indian Youth Literature Award, among others. I need to ask for recommendations, look at booklists, use my local library, and get these books into my classroom.
Over the past few months, there have been glimmers of hope in my reading life. wishtree by Katherine Applegate explores how a community can heal after a hate crime against a Muslim family. Hello Goodbye Dog teaches young readers about therapy dogs and how they assist students with disabilities. Girl Rising helps young adult readers learn more about education equity around the globe. As these new books are released, we have the opportunity to put them in the hands of the children who sit in our classrooms.
At the International Literacy Association conference this summer, I was inspired by the work of National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Gene Luen Yang. His Reading Without Walls challenge asks readers of all ages to reach outside their comfort zones. There are three parts to the challenge: read a book about a character who doesn’t look or live like you, a book about a topic you don’t know much about, and a book in a format you don’t usually read. While the concept is simple, the impact is powerful. Can you imagine the changes that could be made if we all spent time expanding our reading horizons?
We are living in a world where we have to know better, and then we have to do better. We have to seek out diverse reading experiences when they don’t land on our newsfeeds or in our classroom libraries. We have to break down the walls of our classrooms to connect our students with the world around them. The books we put in children’s hands today determine how they live their lives tomorrow. Now that we know better, let’s do better.