Arts & Pop Culture / Culture & Society / Short & Sweet

Scholastic So White: why we need diverse children’s books

By Kelly Stone

When I was a kid, I didn’t have great taste in books. My choices were dictated by whatever looked good at the Scholastic book fair in school that year—books that tended to be about girls my age and whose appearances were similar to mine. I spent a good six years or so reading nearly identi- cal books, and never once did I really think about what this homogeneity meant. It wasn’t until high school that I began diversifying my reading list. As I became more curious about the book publishing industry, I discovered a movement determined to make diverse stories the norm.

I worked in my library for a year and a half during high school and became accustomed to passing the shelf with Walter Dean Myers’ novels. Myers is one of the most prolific African-American writers of young adult fiction. I came across a New York Times op-ed piece from 2014 by his son, Christopher, and I stopped cold upon seeing the title: “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature.” In this article, Christopher was speaking to a young Black boy, the title referring to the severe lack of Black characters in children’s books; amid books about talking animals, magic, and superpowers, hardly any of them were about someone who looked like this boy. In clear contrast to my childhood reading experience, I can’t imagine the frustration he must have felt facing the meager selections at his school’s book fair.

BookExpo America, or BEA, is an annual convention in New York City held for booksellers and librarians. In 2014, there was a BEA panel in which all the panelists were white males, which sparked authors of color to voice their thoughts on Twitter using the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks, or #WNDB for short. Since this timely induction, We Need Diverse Books has developed, and is still developing, into a grassroots movement that defines diversity on their official website as “including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, Native, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.” With a mission to produce and distribute diverse books to all children, this team of authors, publishers, educators, and librarians is working to create a literary environment in which any child can read stories about all different types of people and their experiences.

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Art by Kelly Stone

This movement has come so far since my childhood just a few years ago, when it was not yet an organized movement, to now, when the founders have published an entire middle-grade anthology that I purchased in my local bookstore over the last break. Flying Lessons and Other Stories includes ten diverse stories by authors of color. WNDB has also partnered with Scholastic since 2015, helping to broaden the scope of books that younger readers of this generation will have available to them, particularly at book fairs.

Schools are a natural segue for WNDB to expand into since they assign the books that children, no matter their interests, are required to read. This is significant, because it’s been proven that adolescents who have been exposed to different identity groups are more tolerant and understanding of others, and therefore more prepared for their futures in terms of college and careers. WNDB is working to spread diverse books into school curricula through their relationship with Title 1 schools—those that have a larger portion of students from lower-income families. They’re introducing events so that students at these schools can hear from diverse authors in person and donating free diverse books to those districts. It’s not simple to introduce a diverse reading curriculum into schools nationwide. I’m hopeful, however, that current and future generations will be exposed to more than just the limited books you and I probably had to read in our schools.

This progress towards more diversity in books is beneficial to children who are like I was and who are like the boy in Myers’ example. A popular metaphor is that these books can serve as both a “window” and a “mirror.” For kids like me, these stories offer vital opportunities to, as Atticus Finch would say, “climb into someone’s skin and walk around in it.” Young people can’t help the circumstances they’re born into, but this movement provides those of us who grew up in more homogeneous settings with the first steps to understanding a wider range of people and backgrounds. It’s like looking through a window and seeing someone else’s point of view. On the other hand, the many young people who have been extremely limited in their exposure to characters in whom they can see themselves now have more options. They can pick up a book and look into a mirror, discovering a new role model or fictional best friend.

I, for one, am immensely grateful to have stumbled into this movement that has allowed me to broaden my reading choices so much. Whether it is actively volunteering, going to the book store to purchase a book written by a diverse author, or simply suggesting diverse titles to your libraries and schools, every effort counts in the progression of this movement. As stated in the foreword of the WNDB Flying Lessons anthology, these stories are meant for all of us.

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