The most common questions I am asked as an educator center around getting children to read. How do we teach our children to read? How do we foster a love of reading in our children? What if my child can’t read before kindergarten? All of these questions, maybe with exception of the last, are very valid and important. The last is another post for another time. The topic I am addressing today is often overlooked by concerned parents and sometimes even educators: diversity in children’s literature. Yes, it is important that we teach our children to read, and to love reading. It is also essential that the literature we supply our children with is rich in diversity.
When I was pregnant with Emma, I really wanted her to have all the books (I still do). She had a library before she was even born. Even at the age of three, she has her own collection of illustrated Harry Potter books just waiting to be discovered. Having gone through the pregnancies and births of several friends, I can say that the yearn to give our kids books from day one is a top priority to many parents. And it should be. I’m asking you to take it a step further with me.
During the unrest of the recent weeks I have been seeking out ways to learn and understand the lives and experiences of those who are different from me. This is not a new yearning. I’ve always known that I had privilege. I’ve always felt it even in times I didn’t have words for it. Over the past few years I have felt a longing in my heart to become an ally and work toward being a bridge builder. I recognize that I can use my power and privilege to help educate others about the things I have learned and am learning.
One of the most important people I need to teach is my own daughter. I want her to move past tolerance to love, acceptance, and to become an ally for those in our society who are marginalized, to realize that everyone, no matter how different they might be, is unique and special and loved by God.
With such a big task in front of me, I decided to start simple. I recently listened to a podcast in which Jen Hatmaker interviewed leadership coach Jo Saxton (look her up if you don’t know her josaxton.com). Because of that podcast, I was inspired to take a small but meaningful step. I decided to audit my daughter’s bookshelf. I performed a diversity audit on every single piece of children’s literature in this house. When making decisions, I used the theory of mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Books that didn’t fit within this framework were gone.
diversity in children’s literature: mirrors, windows, & sliding glass doors
After decades of studying representation of African Americans in children’s literature, Rudine Sims Bishop (then professor in Education and Human Ecology and now Professor Emerita at Ohio State), determined that children’s literature is a tool for self-affirmation. She used the metaphor of mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors to explain her theory. She explained that books can serve as windows which allow the child/reader to view worlds that “may be real or imagined, familiar or strange.” When books act as windows, the child can see into a world that is different from their own.
Bishop went on to say that these windows can also act like sliding glass doors, allowing the child to use their imagination to “become part of whatever world has been created and recreated by the author.” When children are able to use their imagination to enter into different worlds, they are then able to start relating to that world in a way in which they understand. Sliding glass doors combined with and understanding of empathy can be powerful tools in the mind of a child. Finally, Bishop explained that when the light is right on a window it becomes a mirror and reflects ourselves back to us. In that reflection, she says, children “can see [their] own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience.” Through diversity in children’s literature, children are able to see themselves as an essential part of their own community, which leads to self- affirmation.
how do i know if my child’s literature is diverse?
What does this all mean? Children should see a diverse community in the books they read. As for Emma, she should see kids that look like her, doing the things that she does. She should also see both men and women defying traditional gender roles in careers and in home situations. We live in a small town in the suburbs, so she should see small town, urban, and rural communities. There should be people who look different from her in skin tone and age. The books she reads should include new experiences for her. She should learn about different cultural holidays and celebrations, for example.
I went through every single book and made sure there was a varied selection of mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. What didn’t pass the test? Books with very traditional gender roles, full of one color skin. There were a couple of books of compilations of important people in history. As I looked through the books I noticed that while there were people of color listed, they were never the “main person,” and always seemed like an afterthought. There were also a few holiday books. Yes, they were part of her favorite series, but the focal point of Thanksgiving was the pilgrims and Indians which is not the inclusive view of the holiday we support.
will you join me?
While it seems like a small step, a diversity book audit is an important one. The books a child reads are the first experiences they have with other experiences and other cultures. More importantly, they also provide the first stepping stones to conversations of inclusiveness and feelings. If you decide to give this a try, leave me a comment and let me know how it goes for you. This experience was very eye-opening for me, and I hope it will be for you as well.
need book ideas?
Need ideas to add more diversity to your child’s shelf? Check out the links below.