Middle Grade Monday – The Fight for Diversity
I struggle with finding books for my little friend Aaron. My good friends qualified as foster parents a few years ago and were given care of one of the sweetest, most delightfully loving babies I have ever had the opportunity to know. As time went on and it became apparent that Aaron’s family was not going to be able to care for him, he became eligible for adoption, and my friends were thankfully able to adopt him. One of the greatest joys in my life is picking out books for all of my friends’ children, whether I’m taking them to the library or shopping for them at my local book stores. It’s been no different for Aaron; he loves books and being read to is one of his favorite activities. So, what’s the problem? Aaron is African American and his parents are white.
Early on, I purchased this board book for Aaron; he was delighted with the page that shows a child’s palm and insisted on giving the book a ‘high five’ every time that page was shown. I explained to his parents how important it is for children to see themselves in the characters they read about. I provided them with articles on diversity in children’s literature, lists of authors and illustrators who focus on portraying African American children, and online resources for updated lists. They were very receptive to my urging and have done a wonderful job providing Aaron with a continuous stream of reading material. I also continue to forward them articles about the topic and list of books I find. But now Aaron is almost 3 and I wanted to purchase some board books for him for Christmas.
My local book store is a treasure and has a vast collection of children’s materials from which to choose. They even have a special section devoted to displaying works by and about African Americans. It’s an excellent resource – it’s where I got I like Myself, which was on their oversized board book spinner rack. I started there again, then moved on to the African American section, then to the display full of regular sized board books. Here’s my dilemma, there just aren’t enough! Sure, I could get him an Ezra Jack Keats title, but I know he has all of them. As I continued to look through the books, I was disheartened to find that almost everything that was available Aaron either already has or is too young to read. Most of these books are stunningly beautiful, but they are too old for him. They have complex language and pictures that are not appropriately interesting for his stage of development. An so many, so, so many about are about history – historical events, historical setting, topics, and people. He’s 3 – I just want a board book with at least a few little black faces to stare back at him! Where are the books with characters who just happen to have black or brown or yellow skin? And why am I writing about this for Middle Grade Monday?
Because it’s the same for Middle Grade titles. Where are the novels about kids in the middle grades who just happen to be African American, Latino, Asian American, Native American, etc.? There are so few of them. History, yes, that is there, and books about what it is like to be non-white in America. There are not even enough of these, to be sure, but I am hard pressed to think of more than a handful of titles that prominently feature minority characters that are not specifically about the minority experience. We need these, as well, but we need more. We need so much more. More books like Varian Johnson’s The Great Greene Heist, or Coe Booth’s Kinda Like Brothers, and even more like Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming. We don’t just need diversity, we need diversity within diversity – fantasy and science fiction and mystery and horror novels that feature minorities as main characters. The historical and realistic fiction we have is great, but there isn’t even enough of that. I want a bounty of choices! When I’m doing collection development, I want to have to DECIDE BETWEEN two great series that feature minority characters instead of continually purchasing multiple titles of the few books available. (Ideally I’d love to do both, but that’s a budget issue…)
If you’re similarly interested in making a difference in this fight, I’d urge you to check out the We Need Diverse Books Campaign web site. Continue to promote and purchase books that feature diverse characters, and do what you can to support the development of new voices in young people’s literature. It’s up to us.
About Robin Willis
After working in middle school libraries for over 20 years, Robin Willis now works in a public library system in Maryland.
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