Why We Need Diverse Books

We Need Diverse Books

The recent We Need Diverse Books campaign that began last year continues to encourage readers to diversify their reading selections. The initiative is critical because children of color do not have ready access to books that reflect their own experiences. The potential to read and experience literature that might change their lives (and those of us who read know what that experience feels like) is one they do not have because they do not have the books to promote those experiences. While the U.S. population of children of color rises, the book publishing industry does not reflect these changes. In fact, last year, of the over 5,000 books published for children and young adults, fewer than 10% featured characters of color and even fewer were written or illustrated by people of color according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center.

Fortunately, there is a movement afoot to help change what continues to be the “All White World of Children’s Books.” We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) began after several authors and publishers of color attended a conference and observed that the panelists did not represent a broader readership. Rather than lament this persistent resistance to changing the books made available to young people, these publishers and authors launched their own social media campaign. Over the last year, WNDB ignited and organized a broad swath of educators, librarians, publishers, authors and others with the express goal of making diverse books available to more readers.

According to its website, the WNDB mission begins:

“We Need Diverse Books is a grassroots organization created to address the lack of diverse, non-majority narratives in children’s literature. We Need Diverse Books is committed to the ideal that embracing diversity will lead to acceptance, empathy, and ultimately equality.”

In my literacy work with young people, students often demand books from people that look like them or represent their experience in some way. They want, and need, diverse books.

While the reasons for diversification are all wide-ranging and important, Rudine Sims’ Bishop’s article Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Glass Doors helps understand the power of literature. Here, she makes three points about what texts can do. If a text is a window, it “offer[s] views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange.” Additionally, the text can be a sliding glass door wherein “readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author.” Then, Bishop explains:

When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.” (Bishop)

In my next post, I will provide some ideas about how we might help adolescent readers in middle and high school accept the 2015 challenge issued by WNDB to read between 5-100 diverse books. How?

By pledging to read, 5, 10, 15, 25, or even 100 DIVERSE books. Books where people of color can be first-page HEROES rather than second-class citizens. Books in which LGBTQIA characters can represent social CHANGE rather than social problems. And books where people with disabilities can be just…people.

Up next: books for middle school readers, followed by books for high school readers. What do you think? Are you ready for the challenge?

kim photoDr. Kimberly N. Parker is a 2014 Mass Literacy Champion and English teacher at the Cambridge, Rindge and Latin School in Cambridge, MA. She has received several honors, including the Marion Gleason Most Promising New Teacher Award from the New England Association of Teachers of English (NEATE). Additionally, she serves as the Secondary Representative At-Large for the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and is the President-Elect for NEATE.