I spent my elementary school years at a different school for each grade. We spent some time in Lagos, Nigeria, and on my first day of school in suburban New York, the teacher asked the class to “welcome” me and said:
“Now, Gbemi, come to the front of the classroom and tell everyone about Africa.”
If my not-quite-right clothes and hair didn’t make me feel “other,” THAT certainly did.
At a children’s book fair, a tween wanted to purchase my novel, 8th Grade Superzero. Her mom checked the flap copy. “Jamaican?” she murmured, shaking her head, “That’s not for us.”
Too often, we “otherize” books and the children we think “should” connect to them. Yet, as Professor Rudine Sims points out, young readers need books to be windows — “…they will see that we can celebrate both our differences and our similarities, because together they are what make us all human.”
Here are a few ways to step outside of our reading comfort zones into a world rich in stories.
Make An Effort
Try a formal “Reading Challenge.” We Need Diverse Books promotes “literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people.” Check out their 2015 Reading Challenge for ideas and inspiration. And even if you or your children are firmly entrenched in a particular genre, there are likely a multitude of stories, storytellers, and perspectives within it.
Make It Normal
Be intentional about diverse gifts and recommendations. Debbie Allen’s Dancing in the Wings might help a young dancer soar. Y.S. Lee’s The Agency series can hook a historical fiction lover as much as Jane Austen. For readers with songs in their hearts and souls, Tim Federle’s Better Nate Than Ever has got it covered. Carole Lindstrom’s Girls Dance, Boys Fiddle inspires trailblazers to follow their passions. Judy Blume fan? Meet Veera Hiranandani’s The Whole Story of Half a Girl. Atinuke’s Anna Hibiscus is a vibrant heroine in the tradition of Ramona or Clementine.
Don’t bring diverse titles to the front of the class to “tell everyone about Africa.” Find everyday inspiration in award-winning author Grace Lin’s “cheat sheet” or bookseller Elizabeth Bluemle’s “A World Full of Color” database.
Seek out lists like “Notable Books for a Global Society,” “The Rainbow Book List,” and “50 Multicultural Books Every Child Should Know.” Outside in World can launch literary voyages through translated books; Disability in Kidlit, The Brown Bookshelf, and Mamiverse are also wonderful resources for titles featuring underrepresented people and their stories.
I love the If You Liked… series, pairing diverse reads with tried and true favorites. An example: “If You Liked Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, try Two Parrots by Rashin, an award-winning new artist from Iran, who brings Rumi’s classic to life.”
Make Books Your Passport
Use literature to enhance travel — bring Tracey Baptiste’s The Jumbies along on a Caribbean vacation or subway ride through Brooklyn, New York. On runs to The Pickle Guys and the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side, I share memories of Sydney Taylor’s lighthearted All-Of-A-Kind Family series set in that neighborhood. Explore the Sydney Taylor award winners, stories that “authentically portray the Jewish experience.”
While it’s generally a good idea to avoid presenting diverse literature only as opportunities for teachable moments, it’s also important to steer away from an empty calorie buffet approach. I remember “International Heritage Days” where we brought in foil-covered samples of “cultural” foods, nibbled, and moved on.
It can be uncomfortable, but don’t avoid unpacking issues of representation that come up in children’s literature. Mitali Perkins’s “Straight Talk on Race: Challenging the Stereotypes in Kids’ Books” is a great starting point for conversation, as are Debbie Reese’s American Indians in Children’s Literature and The Pirate Tree blogs. We’re all better off if we help our children navigate the challenges of our world rather than pretend they don’t exist.
We each have a story. All of our stories are precious. There is a world full of beautiful, complex tales out there — let’s go up to the front and enjoy them, together.
Looking for some great stories to share with your child? Check out Kids Like Me: 18 Books with Diverse Main Characters.