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Find more Promoting Diversity at Your Library
It’s no secret that children’s publishing has a problem. Numerous venues, from the New York Times to Twitter, have rightfully brought to light the significant disparity in the representation of diversity in kids’ books. So what can librarians do, both immediately and in the long term, to make things better?
Editors sometimes explain that they simply aren’t seeing diversity in submissions. Nevertheless, many publishers, libraries, and other organizations are making great strides toward fostering a more diverse landscape in children’s literature. Lee Byrd, publisher of Cinco Puntos Press, encourages paying attention to independent publishing houses: “Diversity is happening in publishing, but at a small-press level. According to . . . research conducted by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, about half of the books that the center counted as diverse in 2013 were published by indie publishing companies.”
Elizabeth McChesney, director of children’s services, and Andrew Medlar, assistant chief of technology, content, and innovation, both at Chicago Public Library, spoke highly of awards like Pura Belpré, established in 1996, and Coretta Scott King, established in 1969, to call attention to multicultural titles, which in turn helps librarians better serve their increasingly diverse communities. Another resounding success is the grassroots organization We Need Diverse Books (WNDB). According to Aisha Saeed, vice president of strategy at WNDB, they’ve so far raised more than $300,000 to fund a wide array of initiatives, which include “publishing internships, the Walter Dean Myers Award and Grants to honor diverse authors and encourage aspiring authors, mentorship programs,” and more. “All these separate and connected efforts are a testament to the power of ordinary people who are deeply dissatisfied with the lack of representation in publishing,” says Jason Low, publisher of Lee & Low Books.
Granting awards, funding aspiring authors or publishers, and acquiring diverse books are all crucial parts of the effort to expand multicultural offerings in children’s literature, to be sure, but there are other efforts librarians can make at a local level. Simply altering the way of thinking about the audience for a book can lead to significant changes. “It’s important to stop thinking that books about white kids are for all children, but books about Latino/a or black kids are just for black kids and Latino kids,” says Byrd.
Similarly, while annual month-long celebrations of particular cultures, such as Black History Month or Native American Heritage Month, do provide opportunities to highlight books from those cultures, this practice sometimes “encourages the bad habit of pulling specific books out in [one month] and ignoring them the rest of the year,” says Low. Integrating multicultural books in displays year-round and including titles featuring multicultural characters when offering suggestions to any young reader, regardless of his or her background, are easy ways to foster diversity.
One of the most important and empowering parts of reading is the opportunity for young readers to see themselves, but it’s also crucial not to pigeonhole diverse books for particular groups of children. Low notes, “Great diverse books were acquired for a reason—because they are also great stories.” Great stories have universal appeal, and that commonality can go a long way in engendering empathy. Saeed takes that concept even further: “Reading about others and finding the common humanity within us all is the most effective way to eradicate racism.”
The best way to implement these kinds of changes is to encourage an atmosphere of open, honest dialogue, particularly with children, even though it may seem like a sensitive topic to broach. As Low notes, “We genuinely believe kids are smart. They will be able to recognize when real effort is being made to engage them honestly. . . . What is more important than worrying about missteps is how errors are addressed and what is learned from making them.”
McChesney and Medlar similarly note, “These conversations may ‘feel’ uncomfortable to a librarian, but they are important to our kids and [they] help them gain power as both consumers and critics.” If librarians allow themselves the room to make mistakes, and openly and humbly accept feedback, they should be able to help create change, even it if is incremental rather than overnight. “It is better to jump in with both feet,” advises Low, “and not worry about getting wet.”
Web Resources and Other Helpful Articles
2012 Census graph illustrating the most common non-English languages spoken at home (PDF provided by Tuttle Books)
American Indians in Children’s Literature (Compiles book reviews, criticism, lists of works by Native Americans, and a wealth of information about challenges faced by Native Americans in regards to representation and misrepresentation.)
American Indian Youth Literature Award (Awarded by the American Indian Library Association every two years to the best youth books by and about American Indians.)
Arab American Book Award (Sponsored by the Arab American Museum, this award highlights standout books written by and about Arab Americans.)
Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature (This award, sponsored by the Asian Pacific American Library Association, has adult, children’s, picture book, and young adult categories, honoring achievements in works about Asian/Pacific American heritage.)
The Cooperative Children’s Book Center (Affiliated with the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education, this site offers a wealth of information and conducts a yearly analysis of diversity in children’s literature.)
Disability in Kidlit (Includes reviews, resources, and roundups of youth books addressing a broad scope of disabilities)
Diversity in YA (Targeting diversity in YA novels specifically, this blog offers reviews, lists, and links to interviews with authors.)
The Pirate Tree (A collective of children’s and YA authors dedicated to considering issues of social justice in books for youth.)
Why Hasn’t the Number of Multicultural Books Increased in Eighteen Years? (From Lee & Low’s Diversity Gap Studies, which include helpful, easy to read infographics on a wide array of media outlets, including film, TV, and theater.)
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