by Tracy Gallagher, Becky Walton, Jenny McCluskey, Jeanne Martin and Jill M. Barton Collection Development, Youth Materials
Does the topic of diversity make you squirm in your chair a little uncomfortably? Do you truly understand the reasons behind all the discussions about diversity and exactly why it’s so important? Do you know who the underserved young people in your community are? Or why? Or what their needs are?
Life is a learning environment, as is the school, the library, and the home—and books are a medium that can transcend the places where young people spend so much of their time—in school and at home. Developing a love of reading and breeding curiosity about the world and the people in it is one of the most important things we help children do.
Where the kids are concerned, it’s important to be careful with the language we use that could unintentionally suck the fun right out of reading. We want young people to be drawn to reading, not to have it foisted upon them; in many cases, that may require creativity!
In his book, Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Learning and Teaching, Sharroky Hollie encourages educators to consider how they build reading skill and confidence when switching from the language they use outside of school, to school language. You could replace school in that instance, with socially acceptable, and by language, he doesn’t mean something other than English; he means slang and ethnolinguistic rules that are native to certain cultures. So how can those of us who are trying to foster a love of reading overcome kids’ reluctance or disinterest in reading things that are written using a voice that doesn’t feel authentic to them?
It would ideally start at a young age, with books that feature characters that look like the readers and their families, but that doesn’t always happen. And it goes beyond that anyway. How many times have you or someone you know been in a position where you weren’t particularly interested in something until you find yourself physically in a place where something is made, done, or where some significant thing took place? Suddenly you’re fascinated by this topic that you couldn’t have cared less about before. You’ve experienced the power of being in the moment—being affected by the place.
In 2016, Gene Luen Yang, the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, launched Reading Without Walls, a national program that celebrates reading and diversity and is a partnership with the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress, Every Child a Reader, The Children’s Book Council, and Macmillian Children’s Publishing Group. It will be an annual event and anyone can participate. The idea behind it is simple—read something different! The website offers downloadable, formalized materials to help support the program in your local library or school. The campaign encourages readers to “read a book about a character who doesn’t look like you,” or to read “a book about a topic you don’t know much about,” or “a book in a format that they don’t normally read for fun, such as a chapter book, an audio book, a graphic novel, or a book in verse.”
On his website, Yang also has a series of podcasts on the subject where he talks with creators like Raina Telgemeier and attendees at San Diego Comic-Con about the books that resonated with them as kids. Check out his program and promote your involvement through social media using #ReadingWithoutWalls. Share the books you chose with your friends and challenge them to do the same! In fact, this would be a terrific book club type event for young people this summer!
#WeNeedDiverseBooks is becoming mainstream and very successful in their efforts—fully 28% of children’s books published in 2016 were by and/or about people of color, as opposed to an average 10% from the years 1994-2014. Publishers are even creating new imprints devoted to underrepresented ethnicities and cultures like Simon and Schuster’s brand spanking new children’s imprint Salaam Reads whose stated mission is to “introduce readers of all faiths and backgrounds to a wide variety of Muslim children and families, and offer Muslim kids an opportunity to see themselves reflected positively in published works.”
This trend has inspired kids to take action to promote books featuring people of color. Sidney Keys III found it hard to find books with African American characters at his school library, and was amazed at the variety of books at AFAM specialized bookstore EyeSeeMe in MO. He was spurred to create a book club for his peers that expanded to include Skype author events and gaming sessions; he calls it Books N Bros.
Marley Dias is another middle schooler who noticed the distinct lack of “mirror” books at school and decided to do something about it. She started the trending hashtag #1000blackgirlbooks to raise donations that feature black girls as protagonists to be sent to a charity she knew of in Jamaica. She’s also started a book club and more impressively is lobbying her local school districts to adopt more diverse texts into the mandatory curriculum. And she will have a book coming out from Scholastic in January called Marley Dias Gets It Done – And So Can You* exploring activism, social justice, volunteerism, equity and inclusion, and using social media for good.
Something we’ve recently become aware of is the growing practice of utilizing sensitivity readers early in the writing and editing process—Katy Waldman of Slate called them “advising angels—part fact-checkers, part cultural ambassadors—[they] are new additions to the book publishing ecosystem. Either hired by individual authors or by publishing houses, sensitivity readers are members of a minority group tasked specifically with examining manuscripts for hurtful, inaccurate, or inappropriate depictions of that group.” Although sensitivity readers are becoming much more widespread (especially for YA), some houses have been employing them for years—Waldman points to Lee & Low as one such example, itself a house devoted to diversity. And Justina Ireland started the website Writing in the Margins back in 2010 to connect authors with a very detailed database of sensitivity readers and their qualifications and experiences.
However, the practice is not without controversy and pushback, mainly from authors themselves. Some feel that it creates a stifling effect on free-thinking, expression and imagination that amounts to nothing less than censorship. Others, like writer Hillary Jordan, feel it’s more of a risk-management tool, which she finds troubling, because literature “can’t come from a place of fear.”
The issue is further complicated by the readers themselves feeling as if they may be contributing to a different problem while attempting to advise authors—one of cultural misappropriation and even exploitation. A recently published Chicago Tribune piece quoted reader Dhonielle Clayton from Writing in the Margins as she was ruminating on “cultural thievery” saying, “Why am I going to give you all of those little things that make my culture so interesting so you can go and use it and you don't understand it?"
One answer to her question may be for publishers to seek out narratives written by authors from those marginalized communities—it’s a trend typified by #OwnVoices. SLJ devoted a webcast to the subject in mid-April.
Diversity and sensitivity in literature for young people is a nuanced issue full of the tensions and beauty that reflect the reality we face every day as members of a diverse America. And as librarians, we’re proud of being part of an industry that is confronting those tensions and celebrating that beauty head-on.
For those of you who are Ingram customers, Ingram’s librarians have created several ipage lists of titles for suggested further reading aimed at both reflecting kids and showing them how others live. To find these lists, log on to ipage and go to Browse | High Interest Topics, or contact your Ingram sales rep if you need help locating them.
Do you have suggestions for other ways libraries can offer both windows and mirrors for their young patrons? Or are you excited about a related project you’re heading up? Tweet us @IngramContent! We’d love to feature you!