An article entitled “The ‘Rock Star’ Librarians Who Choose What Your Kids Read,” published in the Wall Street Journal on March 5, 2017, caused some school librarians to question how the general public perceives our profession. The article highlighted the work of four individuals and their influence in marketing books to children. The voices featured in the article included John Schumacher (Scholastic’s Ambassador for School Libraries); Colby Sharp, co-founder of the “Nerdy Book Club” and co-host of “The Yarn” blog and podcasts, hosted by School Library Journal; Travis Jonker, SLJ‘s “100 Scope Notes” blogger and “The Yarn” co-host; and Matthew Winner, a co-founder of “All The Wonders,” host of the All The Wonders podcast, and co-author of this article.
Each took to social media to publicly express their disappointment in response to what they considered to be a misrepresentation of school librarians and the lack of diversity among the voices featured in the article. The article missed an opportunity to tell the story of a dedicated and diverse group of professionals who work tirelessly to inspire children to be readers.
The WSJ piece struck a chord with many, largely because the subjects of the article are all white men in their mid-30’s, which is a misrepresentation of the profession. The reporter interviewed other educators as well, but their comments did not make it into the piece. Nerdy Book Club co-founder Donalyn Miller, Blogging Through The Fourth Dimension’s Pernille Ripp, and Newbery Award-winning author Katherine Applegate all shared their frustration via Twitter and Facebook at being interviewed and then left out. The presence of women in school libraries and children’s literature was conspicuously absent. While we felt as hurt, angry, and frustrated as others, we have also begun to face the uncomfortable fact that we are part of the problem.
The fact that diverse voices weren’t heard, valued, or represented in the WSJ article made us look more closely at the people we look to as leaders, the authors and role models we invite to our schools, the books we choose to read, review, and purchase. We need to do more, and we need to be better. If we want our students to see themselves on our bookshelves and in our programming, we need to actively work toward that goal. How can we expect the world (or the Wall Street Journal) to see school libraries as places where diversity is honored and celebrated if we are not working to make them that way?
We reached out to a few individuals we look to as leaders on the topic of diversity in libraries and literature, and asked them: What can I do next week, next month, and next year to cultivate diversity in my collection and program?
Kathy Burnette, middle school librarian and author of “The Brain Lair” blog, has this practical advice:
Next week: It’s still Women’s History Month. Find a hidden figure to discuss next week with your students. Post pictures, biographies, show a video, just bring this phenomenal woman to life for your students.
Next month: Find out where you stand on the Cultural Proficiency Continuum. Try to do some activities that will help you move towards proficiency.
Next year: Make a plan to implement Teaching Tolerance’s Perspectives for a Diverse America curriculum. If that seems overwhelming, pick a single grade to focus on, buy the books needed for that grade, and start your journey with those students. Each year, as those students move up, add the next range.
Ellen Oh, author and We Need Diverse Books cofounder, offers this:
Challenge your thinking.
What do I mean by that? Well, I am always struck by how all of us can get trapped into black-and-white ways of thinking that we only become aware of when it is challenged. We don’t know what we don’t know. It takes another perspective to even open our eyes and then our automatic reaction tends to be denial, rejection. As if this new perspective is saying we are wrong or bad or some other negative instead of thinking, hey, I’m learning something new that I didn’t know before. I think the problem with the lack of diversity is the number of people who still haven’t changed their old ways of thinking. Who haven’t recognized that racism and sexism and bigotry are a systemic problem. Instead of taking these challenges personally, we must apply them to the bigger societal issue. Instead of immediately being defensive, we must challenge our ways of thinking. Only then can true dialogue happen, and diversity will not just be a discussion piece but a true way of life.
Donalyn Miller’s advice is brief and powerful:
Seek out diverse titles that do not show diversity as an issue or problem in the story. So many titles portray what makes the child diverse as an issue or source of conflict in the book, such as civil rights marches and slavery. While these stories should be told and read, children need positive, affirming portrayals that do not reinforce marginalization or “white man rescue” narratives.
Award lists (such as the Coretta Scott King, Pura Belpre, Schneider Family, and Stonewall awards) are also a good place to start, but they are not enough. It’s also not enough simply to seek out titles with characters who are people of color, differently abled, or LGBTQ. We must find authors and illustrators who can represent those diverse perspectives as well. We need to make representation and diversity a priority when deciding which authors, illustrators, and role models we invite into our schools, lift up in our teaching, or include in our book lists. We need to show our students that heroes and leaders come in many forms.
When planning your next author visit, ask yourself, “Does this person represent an experience or perspective that is different from the voices our students are used to hearing every day?”
When creating a book list for parents, your school, or in consideration for a book award, ask yourself, “Does my list represent not only a diversity of culture and experience within the characters, but also within the authors and illustrators who created the books?”
When purchasing books for your classroom or school library, ask yourself, “Will the stories and lives depicted in these books expand the understandings of the readers accessing them, foster their tolerance for one another’s differences, and inspire them to ask questions and seek out new knowledge?”
This takes time and effort, and we are going to make mistakes. The worst thing we can do is let this conversation fade away, as it has already begun to do in our social media feeds. Remember what this feels like, so we can take the necessary and difficult steps to change the story.
Where can you find ongoing conversations about diversity and representation throughout children’s literature? Start here!
- Reading While White
- The Brown Book Shelf
- We Need Diverse Books
- Disability in Kidlit
- Latinxs in Kid Lit
- I’m Here. I’m Queer. What the Hell do I Read?
- American Indians in Children’s Literature
Addie Matteson is a middle school librarian at the Westminster Schools in Atlanta, GA. Matthew Winner is an elementary library media specialist in Elkridge, MD and a co-founder of “All the Wonders.”
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