I was allotted some funds for the purpose of further developing my classroom library. Books are my happy place so I was overjoyed! I set out on the task with the express purpose of not only getting books that met the varying reading levels of my students, but also books that represented the cultures of the students in my classroom and ones that met their wide range of interests.
I looked back over the reading interest surveys they’d completed earlier in the school year in my class to help me get to know them better as readers and as a way of guiding my library sections. Most of my students shared that they don’t have very many books of their own at home and that, although attending school in close proximity to the central library of the borough of Queens, going to the library to borrow books, one of my personally favorite pastimes as a middle-schooler, was not a priory for most of them.
The reality was and remains that the books they are exposed to in my class may be the only ones to which they avail themselves. This knowledge made the books I chose to fill our library with all the more relevant.
Although I️ read books with girls as the main character thanks to beloved authors like Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume, I️ can’t remember ever reading a book with a Black protagonist growing up. I was a voracious reader. I still am. Finding books that reflected my image wasn’t something I experienced until I was in my late teens/early twenties and began reading books by E. Lynne Harris, Toni Morrison, and Terry McMillan. That’s a sad commentary. As Liz Dwyer writes, “youths of color rarely see themselves represented as the main characters of young adult novels—even though they’re the fastest-growing demographic group in the United States. The diversity of the authors writing young adult literature isn’t much better.”
Thankfully, today multi-cultural/diversity of book characters and authors is growing; however, we still have a long way to go.
Last month two of my fellow English teachers, Meredith Chase-Mitchell and Lakisha Odlum, hosted an event called “Diving Into Diverse Book Discussions” with other teachers in their respective cities of Washington, D.C. and NYC to shed light on the importance of having books that speak positively to a myriad of students regarding who and what they are. This is especially true for students who do not get to see such positive real-life representations of themselves in the classroom or larger community.
Children of color, girls, members of the LGBTQ community, and members of religious groups that veer away from the patriarchal, heterosexual, Anglo-Saxon roots of this country are considerably underrepresented in young adult fiction and in the canon of books that comprise most middle-school curricula. This invisibility in fiction has harmful effects on these students’ psyches. It sends messages to them that they are not of value and not worthy of being featured in a positive manner. This is serious. In an essay called “The World of Children’s Books is Still Very White”, the author notes that “in a 2013 essay in The Horn Book, a children’s literature magazine, Christopher Myers, an author and illustrator wrote: ‘The plethora of threatening images of young black people has real-life effects. But if people can see us as young dreamers, boys with hopes and doubts and playfulness … perhaps they will feel less inclined to kill us.’”
Building a diverse classroom library may be the only way our students get to learn about themselves and the world around them in a non-stereotypical, edifying, non-threatening way. Check your shelves and make wise selections. If you’re not sure where to begin, there’s help out there. It may literally save our children’s lives.