A friend and I attended an event at one of my favorite literary non-profits.
The Children’s Book Bank gives books to kids of low-income households in Portland. In recent years, they’ve made a bigger push to provide culturally relevant books to the families they serve through their A Story Like Mine initiative to help them purchase diverse titles for their collection since only one percent of books donated to them contain multicultural content. Last night’s event, Books Open Minds, was a conversation about why all children need books featuring diverse characters.
The panel included executive directors from different cultural organizations the Children’s Book Bank partners with as well as an elementary teacher. It was a well attended event full of educators, librarians, booksellers, parents, and others all interested in playing their part to ensure every reader be represented in the books that will shape who they are and the world around them.
As a long-time volunteer with the Children’s Book Bank, I loved hearing from its Founder and Executive Director why this issue was important to her. When she would drop off books, she would be asked if there were books in Spanish or if there were books featuring characters of color. And because they rely heavily on public donations, she would have to say, “No, not right now.” It was something she would have to say often until she realized it was no longer a sufficient answer. Something can be done about it. (I really appreciated this story because, as someone pointed out, it was leading by listening. It was like answering questions that weren’t being asked directly. Will there be books about people who look like me, who talk like me? Will there be a story like mine?)
Starting off the discussion was introductions which included the panelists sharing a book they loved reading as a child or they loved reading to their kids. I was glad that the moderator shouted out Junot Diaz’s upcoming picture book Islandborn. Other titles mentioned were Peekaboo Morning by Rachel Isadora, Grace Lin’s Ling and Ting series, Kaya Doi’s Chirri and Charra series, What Can You Do with a Paleta (¿Qué Puedes Hacer con una Paleta?) by Carmen Tafolla, Frog Girl by Paul Owen Lewis, and Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith.
Christopher Myer’s article “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature” was quoted and it set the tone of how much lack of diversity in kids books there was and why it was damaging. (Also mentioned was Alvin Irby’s blog. And, not mentioned, but which I highly recommend reading is Walter Dean Myer’s companion piece to his son’s article “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?”)
Some of the problems mentioned by the panelists were:
-Kids of color didn’t see themselves as children having fun, going on adventures, in both realistic and fantastic settings.
-Often their people were presented as historical figures, injustice fighters, and sidekicks.
-They weren’t being shown as present-day characters and they were given higher standards (and which I would add that they then aren’t given the same opportunities to achieve them in the real world.)
-It often leads to assimilation rather than being who they really are.
These outdated ideas are wrong and damaging to every young reader’s growing brain for they reinforce stereotypes and generational trauma.
They mentioned that representation was important- and representation within each culture was still lacking and necessary- and to not just have one narrative be the story of their people. And, if there were books that celebrated their culture or their specific experience, they were often not easily accessible.
They provided some ways to fix this problem, adding some of my own:
-Find and buy the books that represent and celebrate diversity.
-Support the authors, illustrators, creators, publishers, who write the stories you want to read.
-Write your own unique stories.
-Have these kinds of talks with your family, friends, and colleagues.
And, as a bookseller, I would say support your local independent bookstores as much as possible when buying these books because it’s not some big online corporation that provide cultural and community building events. And, support your public libraries in checking out these books and taking advantage of other resources they provide in promoting diversity.
One of the stories that stood out for me came from the teacher. His class had installed a Little Free Library at their school and they held a successful book drive collecting over 1,000 books! Instead of just celebrating their success, they used it as a learning opportunity. They did a study on how diverse the donations were. They wanted to know how different genders and races were represented if at all.
Their findings were similar to those that Lee and Low did a few years ago. A little more than 50% they received had people on the cover, 79% of which featured only white characters on the cover, 32% of whom were boys. Their takeaways were very insightful.
I came into this event thinking I’d have heard everything they’d have to say but I came out inspired to do my part.
If you’re interested in helping The Children’s Book Bank in providing diverse books to the kids they serve, support their A Story Like Mine project. And do pass on their information to interested parties if they want to know more or can help!