Addressing the Single Story

In this TED Talk, novelist Chimanda Adichie explains the idea of a single story, or what happens when we don’t have a balanced, diverse understanding of a people. Adichie’s own experience, growing up in Nigeria, but only reading stories that were written by British authors, showed her how “how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story.” As she grew up, Adichie saw how she became the representation of others’ single stories (for example, about Africa) and how she saw others as single stories (as in a trip to Mexico).

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Single stories, says Adichie, are created when one representation of a people is told again and again, until this becomes a reality. “Single stories,” Adichie says in her talk, “create stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.”

Diverse literature is part of the antidote. Diverse literature opens up single stories and makes them more complex. They raise questions about the nuances of a group while broadening and widening our understanding of a group. They take away the power that a single story has to shape our feelings towards a group.

Reflecting on this talk, I can see how single stories could be perpetuated (unknowingly) in classrooms. One character is presented or one story becomes the narrative for how a people “is.” Or, stereotypes are challenged in a basic way, with the dismissal of the stereotype, rather than a thorough building out of knowledge through stories, questioning, and research. Time moves fast and few teachers feel they have time to linger in literature. That said, avoiding the single story is important, both for children’s development, their intellect, and their understanding of the world.

In a recent The Reading Teacher article, scholars Fenice Boyd, Lauren Causey and Lee Galda outlined three ways to bring more diverse literature into classrooms:

I would add to that list: make yourself aware of the single stories that your students have. What do they think they know about a group? And why? Then, consider how you can bring in stories—literature, video, media—to help them confront and reshape those single stories, one at a time.

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Let’s Prioritize Diversity in Children’s Books

Recently, this School Library Journal post caught my eye. In it, Kathleen Horning discusses why, even though Walter Dean Myers has posed the question “Where are the people of color in children’s books?” twice (in 1986 and again in 2014, both times in the New York Times), there are still few children’s books that feature children of color.

In fact, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, where Horning is the director, found that in 2013, of 1,509 children’s books published, 78.3% featured human characters, and 89.5% of those featured a White protagonist. I found this statistic surprising. First, I would have thought there were more books with animal characters. And, second, I would have thought the percent of non-White characters would have creeped up higher than 10.5%.

Within that 10.5%, though, I wonder how many books are cultural stories, like The Story of Ping by Marjorie Flack and Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe. How many are stories where the character’s ethnicity is a major part of the plot, such as Return to Sender by Julia Alvarez or Duck for Turkey Day by Jacqueline Jules. And, how many are books that just happen to have diverse characters, unrelated to the plot. For example, Corduroy by Don Freeman, The Snowy Day by Jack Keats and Mary Brigid Barrett’s books. (The GoodReads list of books with diverse protagonists currently contains 10 books.)

For young children, reading about a variety of protagonists normalizes diversity. As they grow as readers, children seek out books that reflect their own lives and books that let them into other worlds so they can experience something totally different. To that end, literature legitimizes or marginalizes experiences, making it increasingly important for young readers to experience the diversity that exists across the country through books.

The solution for the lack of diversity in children’s literature, as Horning sees it, is to start buying more books that feature non-White characters. “Buying a book,” she reminds, “is a political act.” Buying books is a campaign I can get behind, and I’ve included additional ways to make diversity in children’s literature a priority.

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  • Check out The Diverse Books Campaign.
  • Use books lists like this one from NPR and this list from Amazon when shopping for kids books.
  • Teachers can post Donors Choose grants requesting diverse classroom libraries.
  • Teachers and parents can encourage kids to choose one diverse book each time they order from a school book order.
  • When it’s time for holiday and birthday presents, direct people to an Amazon wishlist of diverse books.
  • Teachers can invite diverse authors to participate in classroom conversations through Skype in the Classroom or Scholastic.
  • Use Good Reads to create, maintain, and update reading lists of diverse books, and have students read, share, and discuss diverse reads online.