My students had the great fortune of having Gita Varadarajan come visit our school again last week. Her book, Save Me a Seat, was a large part of what pushed me to see the immense need for diversity in children’s literature. Her visit to my school last year was the turning point for me; my experience with diverse books went from awareness to advocacy. Seeing the connection she made to the students was life-changing for me and I knew I’d make it my professional mission to give kids and teachers tools to provide all children with windows and mirrors to their identity.
This time when she came to my school she spoke to my 5th graders about authenticity- the need to tell authentic stories, based on your identity, and the impact that has on the stories you create. The statistics on diversity in children’s literature are pretty dismal. While 31% of children’s literature published in 2017 features people of color, only 7% of those books are written by people of color. So who is writing these stories? And how can they authentically tell the story of a person of color? Why is there such a gap? And what does this say about the publishing industry?
Last year when Gita was at my school she ran a writing workshop with students in 4th and 5th grade. She told me to take note of the names my students chose to include in their writing. While most of my students are Indian, Asian, or African American, they often choose very “typical” American names and not names that reflect their own identity. What kids are telling us with this simple choice is that they do not feel people of their culture are characters in stories. This simple action of selecting to name a character “Bob” or “Mary” when their family is full of “Arnav” or “Sanjana” or “Tyree” means they don’t believe their story, their identity, is what stories are about.
So how do we fix this? How can we, as educators, help this? How can we help kids to tell their authentic story? Over the past year I’ve found a few strategies that have really helped.
1- Have diverse books, written by diverse authors, on display. While I have a large collection of books in my library I make sure to prominently display books that reflect my students on the end caps, at the front of baskets, etc. I don’t want these books buried in the library and missed!
2- Feature read-alouds about diverse children, in diverse countries, written by diverse authors! It’s not enough to just have them housed in the classroom- share them!
3- Use diverse names in your own writing! Anchor charts, math story problems, scenarios you write out in science labs… anywhere you are writing a name is an opportunity to “normalize” your students’ diversity. If all of our math word problems show names like “Mike” or “Kelly” why would kids feel comfortable writing one about “Palak” or “Tyshaun”? How are we, as teachers, providing kids with mirrors to their own identity?
4- Support diverse authors! Buy their books! Share THEIR stories! Follow blogs that support diversity. I cannot speak highly enough about Lee & Low Books. They are my go-to resource for diversity in children’s literature.
5- Use your authentic voice and encourage kids to do the same. I am a white woman, so I cannot write from the perspective of any other racial group. I can share authentic stories of my culture, my religious upbringing, my family dynamics, and my life experiences. Similarly, my students can share stories of their own backgrounds! Embrace and encourage them to use their strengths of their own identity to find their voice.
6- Don’t be scared. I spoke to my superintendent today about how sometimes I fear having a voice on this topic because I feel I don’t “deserve” to have a say on a topic that isn’t something I’ve personally experienced. Feeling this way is normal- but we all need to stand up for diversity and helping children to be proud of who they are. Remember, kids spend 6+ hours a day, for 13+ years of their life, in a classroom. That comes out to about 14,040 hours. That’s a LOT of time! We as educators have power to help shape lives with all of that time, but we can’t be scared. Be brave- no change will come from stagnation!