I LOVE youth lit! As my girls have gotten older, I’m getting exposed to more and more amazing youth lit books. In an effort to diversify our reading, I have made a bigger and bigger effort to expose my girls to literature with culturally and racially diverse characters and authors. (And heck! diversity of all types!) As it turns out, it does take effort, because most of what’s available on our bookstore shelves, is still overwhelmingly (and alarmingly) White, Male and Cis.
WOC Seeing Ylit: Reading about Yourself
Kids need to see themselves reflected in the books they read. Kids of all colors and backgrounds.
WOC Seeing Ylit: One of my favorite characters, Deza Malone from The Mighty Miss Malone, written by Christopher Paul Curtis, captures this sentiment perfectly when she says:
When I was in Gary and would read novels I used to put myself right in the middle of the story. I knew it was a great book when it felt like the author was writing about me. Some of the time I’d get snapped out of the book when I read things that I couldn’t pretend were about me, even it I had the imagination of Mr. William Shakespeare.
Words like, “her pale, luminescent skin’ or “her flowing mane of golden hair” or “her lovely, cornflower-blue eyes” or “the maiden fair.” I would stop and think, No, Deza, none of the books are about you.”
Many people of color speak about the lack of representation and its impact on their interest in reading and school. Deza says:
I’d decided in Gary that when it came to reading those kids of words, I had four choices: One, I could pretend I had blond hair and blue eyes. But that didn’t feel right. Two, I could start reading the novels like they were history books, just a bunch of facts put together. But that wasn’t what the authors wanted, they wanted me to enjoy the story the way they wrote it. Three, I could change a word or two here or there and keep enjoying them by pretending they were about me. Or four, I could stop reading novels altogether.
Children shouldn’t have to work this hard to engage with the books they read. Deza’s character is actively trying to engage as a self-identified reader. What about kids who don’t automatically connect with books?
WOC Seeing Ylit: Lost Interest in Cliche
Part of the reason I lost interest with school was that as a teen I grew tired of seeing the same old White guys over and over again in my text books and novels read in class. After a while, I stopped reading altogether and turned to other interests. I am lucky for the strong early foundation I had with reading or I may not have developed the initial reading skills needed get me into college where I finally discovered writers I could connect with; writers of color like Alice Walker, Zora Neal Hurston, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Paolo Freire and bell hooks who connected me to a community of educators, authors and cultural critics who reaffirmed I was not alone. Not all students are lucky to get a second chance.
WOC Seeing Ylit: Reading About Others
But reading diverse literature isn’t just important for kids of color, it is also important to read about folks who come from different backgrounds than you. Nikki Grimes writes that diverse books are an excellent means of teaching empathy to children:
Instead of looking the other way while hatred takes root in young hearts and minds, why not try this: Plant the seeds of empathy. Teach the young to feel the heartbeats of races and cultures other than their own. Replace any possible fear of the unknown, with knowledge of the knowable. Teach them the ways in which we humans are more alike than we are different. Teach them that the most important common denominator is the human heart. Start with a book.
Give young readers books by and about peoples labeled “other.” I’m not talking about one or two books, here and there. I’m talking about spreading diverse books throughout the curriculum, beginning in elementary grades, and continuing through to high school. Why? Because racism is systemic and teaching empathy, teaching diversity, needs to be systemic, too.
I like how Grimes points out that diverse reading needs to be systemic, not just a book “here and there.” If it’s not consistent and embedded in the everyday, diverse literature can become a token for diversity. As in, “Hello class, for Black History Month we will be reading a Black author. Don’t worry though, we’ll get back to reading White authors for the rest of the year.”
WOC Seeing Ylit: We Can’t Stop There
And we can’t just stop with cultural representation, we need to think about gender, ability, sexual orientation, the works! Even when we do see various groups, we need to make sure we see them represented in culturally competent ways. Being able to critique the author’s message is an important aspect of being competent reader. It’s important that we teach our children how to critically evaluate stereotypes and narratives in the media we consume so they don’t internalize harmful messages about themselves or other groups.
A really good example of this is this great review posted by marinashutup (an amazing video blogger I follow who does really great cultural critique on YouTube.) Here she models a great feminist critique of the “manic pixie dying girl” character often seen in movies and books. (I plan to share this with my girls, but be forewarned, there is some cussing, so depending on your/your kids comfort level it’s probably not appropriate for early elementary readers.)
One of the reasons I like reading with my tween girls, is the fact that we can actively talk about the books as we read them. You’d never believe the types of conversations we’ve had that might never have come up if we didn’t read it together in a book. For example, Reading Treasure Island, got us so fed up after a while with the lack of representation of girls and people of color, that we decided to change up the main character and make her a West Indian girl. In this way, we were able to stay engaged in a “classic” while also acknowledging the marginalization and stereotyping inherent in an arguable great piece of classic literature.
Does any of this resonate with you? How have been impacted by a lack of diversity in the books you read as a child? How are you talking with your child about representation of various cultural groups in the books you consume?