A Task for All of Us: Championing Young Readers with Diverse Books
Through the years I’ve had great discussions about books with both middle and high school students. I’ve read novels such as Catcher in the Rye and Their Eyes Were Watching God with my students. I’ve read memoirs such as Black, White and Jewish and Down These Mean Streets with my students. I’ve read essays by Zora Neale Hurston and James Baldwin with my students. I’ve also read short stories from 145th Street Stories by Walter Dean Myers and “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid with them. This was literature that was within our curriculum. When it came to books that students were to self select, or read at home for more practice and endurance I received many comments that spoke to student frustration and apprehension. Students often told me, “You [the school] don’t have enough books for kids like us…” or “I don’t read alot because I can’t find books that really interest me, about subjects I like…” or “I really want to read books about teens and drama…Where are those books?” To solve the problem and answer to their frustration, I became one of those teachers who often spent $100 or more on books each month at Borders, Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. Buying books by authors who write novels and stories for and/or about diverse children and teens. But I could never buy enough, because each student reader had different interests and needs from the next student. I tried as best I could to provide a mix of diverse books the students would like. I generally received positive feedback from my students for my efforts. And when I couldn’t spend money, I used my own library card to check out books for my students from the library.
I have always taught in urban environments, where students report that they do not have books in the house, nor does their family’s economic situation allow for them to take trips to local bookstore or order online from Amazon. Additionally, schools do not always have a large budget for classroom libraries and book purchases for students to take a book home to read. Few schools have an initiative to have all students and their parents apply for library cards. With school budget cuts, state test scores, teacher turnover, safety issues and other challenges schools face, oftentimes helping to issue library cards is the last thing on a school leaders’ mind. Unfortunately many of our struggling youth, do not own library cards. But the charge is for educators, children’s writers, librarians and others to help make books accessible and of high interest for students of all backgrounds.
When I was a little girl I read many books, some with characters who looked like me and other books which focused upon characters from other lands and cultures. Kimako’s Story by June Jordan was one of my favorite books as a child. I also read and loved Rikki-Tkki-Tavi by Rudyard Kipling, Marvel Comics, books by Ezra Jack Keats, Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears, The Runaway Bunny and many more! My parents supported me to read everything, ranging from poetry, to short stories, fiction and non-fiction. I grew from a young reader who loved books to an adult reader and writer who cares about boosting the literacy, self value and global awareness in young people.
There has been a great discussion that there are not enough diverse books for children and teens. In a country where there are so many children of diverse backgrounds, how can that be? It’s not for lack of story content written by writers who write for and/or about children of diverse backgrounds. Children of all backgrounds need diverse books because we can no longer turn a blind eye to the inevitable need for us to learn from one anothers’ stories and truths. This means supporting the diversity in children’s books and wherever possible, sharing books with children who are under served, who struggle with literacy and whose self esteem could greatly benefit from reading books where the characters “look” like them and share similar backgrounds and/or experiences.
I believe the charge is for us all to buy and share books with young people that are diverse in content. You don’t have to be a teacher or have children to buy books written for or about children with diverse backgrounds. All you have to do is know that children are suffering because they do not read enough high interest books and because they are not exposed to an abundant of diverse books. This is the problem. If we want children to truly be global citizens, be empathetic and tolerant toward others and have high self value, they have to read more diverse books, about themselves and the people around them.
Check out Wattpad, a site where young readers can read their favorite books!