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It’s Hard to Be What You Can’t See

“When we think about what it is to be ‘connected,’ we think about memory. We think about history. We think about storytelling. All of these words that we hear—‘literacy,’ ‘inclusion,’ ‘diversity’—those are all words for connection . . . When I say to people ‘why do we need to have diverse books?’ it’s not because necessarily everybody needs to see themselves reflected in every book, but because we need that sense of connection. We need to live in a global sense.”

As a new school year starts, many parents are making sure their children have the right supplies from their back-to-school lists and double-checking their courses and schedules. But are we thinking about what books our children are reading? Children of color are now a majority of all public school students and will soon be a majority of all children in America, yet children’s books and the publishing industry have failed to keep up with the rainbow of our children’s faces and cultures and needs and the wide variety of their daily experiences. As award-winning children’s book author and illustrator Christopher Myers says above, this matters in order to give all children a deeper sense of connection to the books they’re reading and to each other and to prepare them to live in a rapidly globalizing, multicultural, multiracial, and multi-faith nation and world.

In 2014 Chris Myers and his late great father, the groundbreaking renowned author Walter Dean Myers, published a widely read pair of companion pieces in The New York Times: “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature” and “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” I was grateful that Chris Myers joined other leading children’s book authors at a roundtable before 2,000 college-age students, public school teachers, and juvenile detention personnel preparing to teach in summer Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools® programs. Our reading curriculum has long been centered on excellent books refl ecting a wide variety of cultures, races, and experiences. For some children it is the first time they have seen books with characters who look like them and share some of the struggles in their lives. Our goal is to help children fall in love with reading, and they respond. “I enjoyed learning about my history.” “That [book] really inspired me because he came from a rough neighborhood.” “Freedom Schools taught me when I learn, I can have fun with it. It made me a better reader because I can understand things.” “I see myself and the books give me hope.”

The “all-white world of children’s books” is nothing new. Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, the moderator of the children’s book roundtable, noted that was the title of a landmark study fi fty years ago “calling out the children’s book world not only for failing to include African Americans in children’s books, but also for feeding White children ‘gentle doses of racism through their books.’” The old books were guilty of sins of commission and omission, and of course Black children were not the only ones left out. Bishop said since 1994 the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin has been counting the number of new children’s books featuring African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Latino Americans each year. But even as the number of Americans of color has continued to grow rapidly, the percentage of books reflecting them has not: the annual total has hovered around 10 percent.

It’s hard to be what you can’t see. Children of color need to be able to see themselves in the books they read. Just as importantly, all children need to be exposed to a wide range of books that reflect the true diversity of our nation and world as they really are. Tonya Bolden, who has written many powerful nonfi ction books for young readers, said engaging history books—especially on her history—were largely absent when she was a child. “When it came to Black history, I remember there was Crispus Attucks and Phyllis Wheatley. And I think  there was a part of me that said, okay, one was free, and he got shot; the other one was brilliant, but she was enslaved . . . What kind of options are those?”

It wasn’t until she got older that she realized how much was being left out. “I came to see there was power in the past, that history makes us whole.” Now she strives to make history come alive in ways that allow children to recognize their ties to people who came before them. Christopher Myers said this is another example of how being able to make connections between their lives and the books they read affects how children see themselves: “When you read one of Tonya [Bolden]’s books, all of a sudden, you realize that the timeline of your life did not start when you were born—that timeline may have started 400 years ago on a ship, or before that. That is the kind of connection we’re talking about. And without . . . that understanding of that timeline, it is really hard to imagine ourselves in the future.”

Writer Janet Wong talked about another kind of connection when she read her poem “Noise” from the book Good Luck Gold. The poem’s protagonist is being teased by a group of children— “Ching chong Chinaman”—for her hair, nose, skin, the shape of her eyes:

It’s only noise
Ching chong
I won’t let it in.
I won’t let it in.
I promise myself
I won’t let them Win.

Wong said she was asked to read that poem during a visit to a school in Singapore by a teacher troubled by the racial hostility that existed there. Even when the context was completely different, a poem like this describes a common feeling of racism and discrimination that lets children fi nally see themselves too. It also lets other children make their own connections with how this person is feeling, including those who have never been teased about their race or eyes and those who have done the teasing.

All children need these kinds of experiences. Is your school providing books that celebrate and include every child? When states like Texas continue to choose or unduly influence the content of history textbooks and texts that distort our past, children need books that portray the entire story of our history accurately so we can all understand who and where we come from. And we need good books of every kind that will draw children in as they keep making new connections. Award-winning Mexican American writer and poet Pat Mora is the founder of El día de los niños, El día de los libros/Children’s Day, Book Day, an annual celebration of creative literacy for children celebrating its 20th anniversary next April.

She told the children’s book roundtable she invented a word to describe what she wants to see in all readers: “bookjoy.” I hope parents, educators, and librarians will use the start of the new school year to engage those in your community, school, or neighborhood library and find out what kind of child and youth books are available now and what they plan to purchase for the future. Let’s demand and support beautiful high-quality books that will allow all children to experience bookjoy as they see themselves and all they have in common with others in a multiracial, multicultural, democratic society. And let’s make sure we teach history that is true. Only the truth can set us free.

[Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www. childrensdefense.org.]



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