More, More, More…Books for Young Interracial Readers

The Washington Post ran an essay today by Nevin Martell, who had trouble finding books that featured interracial characters for his son. Martell points out that, even as there is a lack of diversity in children’s books, “there is a depressing dearth of interracial ones.” And, the books that are out there (like in these lists in Cynthia Leitich Smith and What Do We Do All Day) are often about being biracial, rather than featuring a child who is experiencing something that has nothing to do with his background but just happens to be biracial.

I couldn’t agree more with Martell—we need more books that interracial children can look at and say, “they’re just like me!”

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In reading with my daughter, the books that have reflected her interracial experience the most have been Everywhere Babies by Susan Meyers and More, More, More, said the Baby by Vera Williams (Little Pumpkin has a grandma who is light-skinned). My daughter is still young, and by the time we get to reading longer picture books and early novels, I hope there are more “mirrors” for her.

A Bookshelf Resolution

new-years-resolution I recently came across the Babble post The Lack of Diversity in Books and Movies Hurts All of Our Kids by Brian Gresko. Gresko lays out the fundamentals—that books help children build their concept of the world, and if there are no strong, multi-dimensional, fully-developed characters of color then children may take away stereotypes and prejudice, even from well-intentioned books that feature characters of color in the background.

Gresko makes the argument that we need to use consumerism to drive the demand for diverse books and media. “Because,” he writes, “if we’re not putting our money where our values are, then publishers and producers will feel no pressure to broaden the diversity on screen or page…our children will internalize the white-centric image of the world that they see in their narratives without question.”

Of course, I couldn’t agree more. I’ve already built my daughter’s bookshelf with books that feature a range of diversity (in board books, anyway) like Everywhere Babies by Susan Myers, Baby Cakes by Karma Wilson, and books that feature diverse baby faces. This year, I commit to seeking out more books that feature authentic diversity for my daughter and asking relatives who buy us books to do the same. Finally, a resolution that’ll last beyond February!

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Here are three organizations that can help you build your own diverse bookshelf, and use supply-and-demand to drive diversity:

We Need Diverse Books

Bee Me Books

The Brown Bookshelf

Teaching Against the Tide: How to Teach Critical Literacy with Multicultural Texts

Sometimes surfing the internet, in this case the research archives of the International Reading Association, can yield the most interesting finds. Recently, I stumbled upon Janice Hartwick Dressel’s article “Personal response and social responsibility: Responses of middle school students to multicultural literature.” In this article, Dressel describes research into how a group of 8th graders responded to multicultural literature, in particular, how readers respond to reading books about cultures that are nondominant and different than their own.

This article fascinated me. To narrow it down a general summary of the topic:

  • Students are very much a product of their environment and readers’ experiences, prior teaching, social situations, and circumstances all impact what they take away from a text.
  • It’s difficult for students to understand other cultures through reading partly because students apply information to the text that normalize it towards their own experience.
  • In particular, students who are from the dominant-culture tend to be unaware of the advantages they have, and can be resistant to understanding how their reality and ideology shapes how they read.

And when Dressel worked with a group of middle school students, she found:

  • Students’ starting knowledge about a culture impacted their understanding and interpretation of new information in the novels they read. They tended to “hold tightly to attitudes reflective of their own cultural groups” (p. 759).
  • Students weren’t interested in exploring differences between their world-view and the one presented in the text. Instead, they understood the novels as exceptions rather than the rule. They dismissed the experiences as exceptional or irrelevant, rather than accepting that the novels posed an “alternate reality.”
  • When students were asked to identify with characters, they ended up recreating the characters to reflect a reality closer to their own.

So, we want to (and should) use multicultural literature in classrooms to build empathy and understanding, but we need to take it a step farther. We need to use multicultural literature to challenge students to think about the nuances, underlying assumptions and biases that they hold, and how their own identity shapes their interpretation of characters and character experiences. As middle school readers, in particular, develop their identity and their understanding of the world, literature still seems an ideal forum for this. Dressel identified a few ways to counteract students’ resistance and response:

  1. She had students write in a Dialogue Journal, in which they responded to the novel from the perspective of a character who was part of a nondominant group. This seemed effective—50 of 75 students felt what it was like to be part of a nondominant group.
  2. Focusing students on aspects of the text that they don’t understand, rather than spending time where they do understand, changes how students read.
  3. Before reading, students need information about the culture they’re about to explore. Simply having a lot of multicultural literature isn’t enough, students need to be taught how to ask questions and seek information about what they’re reading.
  4. Teachers need to create space for students to explore their biases, assumptions, and conclusions through private response, small group response, and then whole class response.

Perhaps the biggest shift, though, is thinking about teaching critical literacy rather than multicultural texts. That gets us more into how students are using texts and thinking, and less about the roster of books that students are exposed to.

Source: Dressel, Janice Hartwick. (2005) “Personal response and social responsibility: Responses of middle school students to multicultural literature.” International Reading Association: 750-764

The New Banned Book

Banned Books Week has come and gone, andt The Guardian recently reported a shift in why books are being challenged or banned. Sex, gender issues, and religion have been the staple of banned books, but The Guardian reports “a recent rise in efforts to get books banned that cover poverty and social class.” This list includes notable novels, like The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, and nonfiction books like Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich. (This increase in challenging nonfiction books about inequality is, I think, a particularly disturbing trend.)

In a time when there is increasing inequality alongside a better understanding of how diverse reading fosters empathy and understanding, the trend towards banning books is alarming. As Mary O’Hara writes, “[i]t is not just wealth that separates rich and poor, but ignorance and the absence of social contact.”

Reading is the only way that many of our young people will gain access to experiences that are different than their own. When I was in middle and high school, I vividly remember reading There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz and Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol. Both books shed light on a reality that was a far cry from my suburban childhood experience and helped me refine my ideas of how the world works.

It occurs to me that this trend stems directly from our comfort level. Adults are notoriously uncomfortable talking with kids about sex (hence the prevalence of banned books that are about sex), but adults are also uncomfortable talking with kids about inequality and poverty. The exact reason why we need kids to read those books is the same reason that adults want them out of schools.

We should encourage kids to read about challenging topics, even when we are uncomfortable with the subject or disagree with the author. It’s that friction that helps students grow as readers and as people. And, hopefully reading books that address inequality will challenge young readers to start asking questions that adults may not want to hear.

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Read the lists of banned books on the American Library Association web site.

Something to Talk About: Books that Demand Conversation

The New York Times recently reported on e-reading with young children—is it screen time or story time? The author points out that when young children read e-books they have lower reading comprehension, likely because the kids interact more with the device than the text. Kids also lose the social component of reading; in terms of learning, interacting with a screen is still no match for real-life conversation.

While I’m sure that reading e-books can be beneficial, especially as kids get older and are using interactive books during playtime, engaging kids with print books provides more than an e-reader can. The article mentions how parents were redirecting their kids’ use of the interactive storybook, making the experience about the device rather than the text. It occurs to me that that’s one of the nice things about reading a book—it’s all about time. When parents are reading with their kids, they have to be one-on-one (or two or three-on-one, but still, a low ratio). That ratio opens up a different type of interaction for parents and kids.

Of course, great kids books provide tons to talk about, from the pictures to what happens next. Still, in the spirit of early reading conversations, I’ve compiled a list of books that demand participation from the youngest readers:

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Are You a Cow? and Moo, Baa, LaLaLa by Sandra Boynton

Both of these books ask students to chime in either by confirming that they are NOT a pig, lamb, or hippo, or adding their voice to the mix of animal sounds.

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Home for a Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown

This book is also filled with questions and ponderings about where a bunny could live as he hops from animal house to house.

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Mr. Brown can Moo, Can You? By Dr. Seuss

Implicit in the title, Mr. Brown expects us to make noises just to show that we can.

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Don’t Let the Pidgeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems

Willems is a master at creating space for conversation in his books and the pidgeon books present one character that kids can talk back to.

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What do You do with a Tail Like This? by Steve Jenkins

This book, more informational than narrative, encourages kids to put their knowledge of animals to work as they talk about noses, tails, and more.