To Create a Library for All Children
To Create a Library for All Children
When I was a child, I devoured books. Anne of Green Gables, Nancy Drew, Enola Holmes, Emily of New Moon, Little House on the Prairies, Jane Eyre, Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, I read them all. To me, the library was a launchpad to worlds far larger than my own. It was a home away from home; I would walk into the library, breathe in the air, and feel safe. When I was still a toddler, this was the place where my mother brought me and my siblings for storytime, a tradition that launched all three of her children into a lifetime of literacy. When I was three, I colored on library books because I learned that, if you did so, you got to keep the books forever. When I was ten, I walked to the library for the first time and spent my summers sweating as I walked the hot sidewalks and relaxing in the cool AC of our neighborhood branch as I devoured book after book. When I was twelve, my siblings and I discovered the Series of Unfortunate Events and raced to see who could finish the series first. When I was 14, I used the library to research babysitting because I was going on my first babysitting job. When I was a high school student, libraries were my study haven and dream generator. Libraries were the place where I could explore places far away from my small town and where I could imagine myself in new situations, where I found I could be anything — a detective, a girl living in World War II America, a princess, a traveler in a fantasy land, a time traveler — as long as I was white.
I am not white. I am brown. I am the product of a biracial marriage, with a white father and a Mexican mother, a child of immigrantes. I learned to roll my r’s, eat tamales, called my parents parents “Grandma” and “Abuelita”, “Grandpa” and “Abuelito”. I didn’t have gum, I had chicle. Mothers didn’t nurse from breasts, they nursed from their chiches. I was both “Nikki” and “Nicolasa”, my brother “Chris” and “Flaquito”, my sister “Jessi” and “Guga”. I didn’t have a sweet sixteen, I had a quinceañera and my birthdays I received birthday calls of people singing “Happy Birthday” and “Feliz Cumpleaños”. I lived a diverse life, yet libraries, my safe space, my haven, did not tell me about these stories. Librarians did not recommend to me these books that I now know exist. I did not find Hispanic voices in displays.
I say this because I am not the only LatinX child who enters libraries to find a safe space. In fact, in a 2019 interview, Sonia Sotomayor, a Hispanic Supreme Court Justice, stated that libraries were “the place where I found comfort and solace after my father’s death. It was a way to escape the unhappiness of my home, actually. And it was a safe space.” Yet, Sotomayor’s literary heroes were only available in the same shade of white as my own — in the form of Nancy Drew. Similarly, Tomi Adeyemi, author of the young adult series Children of Blood and Bone, spent her childhood devouring books during summer reading challenges, yet in her earliest forms of stories (which she never shared with anyone nor planned to share with anyone), she portrayed herself as white or biracial, because the lack of representation had forced her to internalize the concept that stories could not include Black children. These are the stories of library patrons who now hold power, but how many children have this same story with no one to listen to them?
As children’s librarians, we strive to create safe spaces for children. Yet, are we doing all that we can do to make a safe space for all children? When I was a child, I tried to convince myself that I was white because my literary heroes were white and because brown characters, if they were found, were something to be pitied. To this day, I hate my hands because they are tiny, chubby and brown; they make me think of the scene in Anne of Avonlea where Anne is talking to the poor, illiterate and unintelligent servant girl Charlotta:
The warm-hearted little handmaiden was honestly worried over her adored mistress’ condition. …. Charlotta the Fourth’s eyes brimmed up with tears. Anne patted the little brown paw holding the cracked pink cup sympathetically.
My hero was Anne — with her milky white skin and red hair — but in her eyes, I was just a little girl with brown paws. Other literary heroes, ones I found on the shelves of my children’s library or by recommendation by children’s librarians, were similar. Brown people were poor, they spoke poor English in comparison to white heroes, they were represented as young or little, never as adults or peers. Why should I want to be brown if brown had such an unfortunate lot in life?
Unfortunately my story has carried on to the children of the next generation; to this day, children are struggling to find themselves in literature. Just look at Marley Dias, who started the #1000BlackGirls challenge , or Sidney Keys who started the Books n Bros bookclub. These are two children of color who saw the lack of representation in their schools and decided to do something about it — Dias campaigning to find 1000 books with Black girl protagonists for her schools while Keys started a book club to encourage literacy among middle-school boys and uplift Black literature because, in his words, “every time I go to the library at my school, there aren’t many African American literature books there.” While I believe we should appreciate and praise these children for taking action, we also need to ask the question; why are we having children do the work of adults? Why are children being forced to advocate for themselves when children’s librarians should be doing the work as well?
We are children’s librarians and we know the importance of diverse literature, but I wonder if we really understand the impact it is having with our children. Let me reiterate the information we’ve read before and I ask you to really let this sink in:
- 77% of children’s literature is about white protagonists or non-human protagonists. This means that only 23% of recently published literature is about minority groups — Black, LatinX, Asian American/Pacific Islander, and Indigenous children.
- 85% of editorial staff in the top five publishing houses are white which leads to disparity in authentic stories being published and marketed.
- It is incredibly important for children to develop a healthy racial/ethnic identity, especially as children as young as six years old can understand and identify discrimination and racism.
- Teenagers who experience discrimination are more likely to exhibit depressive symptoms and participate in substance abuse and risky sexual behavior, as well as contribute to “lower levels of school engagement, school success and motivation for learning.”
This is the information about diversity, but it’s also important to marry it to the information children’s librarians have known for years — the importance of children’s literature Any children’s librarian can quote the statistics and the research behind quality children’s literature; it is crucial to a child’s development — it helps to prepare children with school readiness skills, to develop a child’s vocabulary as well as to develop essential familial bonds . Books also serve to help develop children’s critical thinking skills and problem solving skills and helps them “develop theories about how the world works”.
We have the information about the lack of representation in literature, the importance of literature and the impact that libraries can have within children’s lives. Yet, we don’t seem to realize the importance that all of this research plays in harmony. Children’s librarians seem to repeat the same motions of “representation” — book displays and programs set around Black History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, and all the other heritage months. I don’t want to say that these months aren’t important, but we need to move beyond just book displays and times of the years. If I don’t walk into a library between the days of September 15th to October 15th (Hispanic Heritage Month), would I find books about Hispanic characters on display? Would I find books that go beyond history and tell stories of people like me in the present tense?
It’s far past time for us to take action. So, how can we move beyond what we’re doing now to create more equitable libraries and space?
Children’s librarians need to read the books about minority characters and critically assess these books. As noted in the review of African-American children’s literature written by Professor Wanda Brooks and Professor Jonda C. Mcnair, “American children’s literature does more than represent a culture. Rather books can dispute negative racial depictions”. It is our responsibility to read and critically assess the books we purchase featuring minority characters. We can no longer rest at just getting books with representation, now we must ask ourselves “Are these books enforcing White supremacist thought? Are these books actually just literary forms of microaggressions (reinforcing negative stereotypes such as “the angry Latina/Black woman”, the “obese Black woman”, “the gangster Black/LatinX teen”, “the studious Asian child”, etc.)? Are these books written by authors of color or are they written by White authors?”
Recognize your own power and wield it. As a library purchaser, you have the power to influence publishers. You can use this power to enforce the need for authentically diverse literature; show that you only want to purchase quality diverse literature written by diverse authors. As noted in Brooks and McNair’s study, historically “publishers had the power to affirm and perpetuate the selective tradition that stereotype African Americans”. What are the books you’re selecting to add to your collection? Are the books featuring African-American protagonists only slavery or Civil Rights era books? Are they books that only feature the protagonists fighting for social justice? These books are important, but so are the fantasy books featuring diverse protagonists, the sci-fi books, the princess books, the fairytales, and every other genre. While it’s important to amplify the historical stories of a culture,“Some….readers prefer happy stories”. My mother, a Mexican immigrant, majored in Spanish in college and with her major, she had to read a lot of books with LatinX characters. I asked her one time if she liked reading these stories, to which she replied, “No, I hated them. They were always the same story with different leads. It was always the same story of ‘fight, fight, fight’ That’s not my life.” She is not the only reader of color who feels this way and it’s imperative that we use our power to advocate for diverse books in all genres.
It’s equally important to find books written by authors of that culture, such as books of the #OwnVoices movement. Studies of literature (covered in Brooks and McNair’s review) have found that authentic representation can help aid elementary school readers comprehension and that African-American families reading books written by African-Americans about African-Americans with their kindergartners can help to develop stronger familial bonds, encourage early literacy skills and develop community support of literacy. Isn’t that our mission and the goal of children’s literature? Use your power to advocate for these books by putting your money where your mouth is. Literally.
Diversify all of your book displays and book related content. Libraries share resources through blogs, journals and videos. Normalize diverse texts by including them in every display, every book list and every reader’s recommendation. Does your library have a book talk or book review video series/blog? Do a diversity audit and assess the books you recommend. Does your library do a Asian Pacific American Heritage Month? Great! How often do they display Asian Pacific Americans (and other minority groups) in the rest of their displays? I currently work at a library and I want to be sure that every member of my community can find a book easily with a character that looks like them on the cover which is why books featuring Black characters, Hispanic characters, Asian characters are on display, right now, in my Green Books Display (for St. Patrick’s Day). I have a wonderful Women’s History Month/International Women’s Day display up right now, except that I need to represent Asian faces in the display which I’m changing now to be more representative. Rather than doing a Black History Month Display, I did a Coretta Scott King display. These are simple actions that require more work, but are vital to supporting diverse children.
Diversify your storytime. Do a storytime audit for diversity to look at how often characters of color appear in your storytimes. One good rule of thumb is to look at the statistics of your community – what percentage is a minority? Do your storytimes represent that percentage? In other words, if my community is 50% Black, do my storytime books have 50% Black characters in them? It’s time to put down some of our classic storytime books in favor of diversifying our storytimes to represent our communities.
Finally— and this might be a slightly shocking concept to librarians — go beyond books. In your storytimes, develop questions that help children to empathize with diverse characters. Helping your early audiences to make “personal responses to stories” helps them to develop deeper social/emotional learning skills and begin to help them think outside of themselves. Do a program audit to see how equitable your programs are — for example, are all of your storytimes during the day? Families with parents that work won’t be able to attend storytimes that occur at 10 AM on a weekday; they need weekend storytimes or evening storytimes. Maybe consider starting a PJ storytime. Talk with your teen and middle school readers about difficult subjects, even if it makes you uncomfortable. It’s only when you “become comfortable with being uncomfortable” that your students can inquire honestly and learning can happen (for all participants). Learn about the actions that library staff can take to create a more equitable space and learn about the cultures you serve. Take a hard look at the staff that serve the community and ask yourself “Is my community reflected in the staff here? If diverse staff continue leaving, why do they leave? How can my actions create a more equitable staff atmosphere?” You may not have power to hire diverse staff, but you can advocate for these staff and raise concerns with your hiring managers. Consider participating in the Public Library Association’s Inclusive Internship Initiative which helps to recruit diverse high school students into the profession — that’s how I started at the library.
Libraries are one of the constant community pillars and children’s librarians have the power to help diverse children identify themselves and grow comfortably into their identities — no matter what their position in the library is. According to Ana K. Marcelo and Tuppet M. Yates’ 2019 study on the power of empathetic reading, “systematic efforts to encourage children’s sense of identification and sense of belonging to their ethnic-racial group(s) through education, media, and community engagement are important to promote positive ethnic-racial identity development”. We, as community workers, are essential to these children. The question has long since moved from “What books should I put in my _____ heritage month display?” Now, more than ever, librarians need to ask themselves “How can I become proactive in all of my programs, displays and book purchases to help diverse children develop positive identities?” Regardless of your decisions or protestations about your lack of power, these children are developing ethnic/racial identities. Rather than focusing on what you don’t have power to change or influence, focus on what you can do. Help the children in your library learn to take joy in their differences, rather than help them try to whitewash themselves. That’s what I’ll be doing.
Brooks, Wanda, and Jonda C McNair. “‘But This Story of Mine Is Not Unique’: A Review of Research on African American Children’s Literature.” Review of Educational Research 79, no. 1 (March 2009): 125–62.
Gall, Elisa. “Empower Kids with #OwnVoices.” School Library Journal 63, no. 5 (May 2017): 14
Lysaker, Judith, and Clare Tonge. “Learning to Understand Others Through Relationally Oriented Reading.” The Reading Teacher 66, no. 8 (2013): 632–41.
Marcote, Allison. “Newsmaker: Tomi Adeyemi.” American Libraries Magazine, June 3, 2019. https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2019/06/03/newsmaker-tomi-adeyemi/.
Marcelo, Ana K, and Tuppet M Yates. “Young Children’s Ethnic-Racial Identity Moderates the Impact of Early Discrimination Experiences on Child Behavior Problems.” Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology 25, no. 3 (2019): 253–65.
Montgomery, L. M. Essay. In Anne of Avonlea, 327–27. Toronto: McClelland-Bantam, Inc., 1909.
Moreillon, Judi. “The Mighty Picturebook: Providing a Plethora of Possibilities.” Children & Libraries 15, no. 3 (2017): 17–19.
“Newsmaker: Sonia Sotomayor.” American Libraries 50 (2019): 24–25.
“Own Voices.” The Seattle Public Library. Accessed March 16, 2021. https://seattle.bibliocommons.com/list/share/628692720/1259856807#:~:text=%23OwnVoices%20is%20a%20term%20coined,character%20from%20an%20underrepresented%20group.
Peet, Lisa. “#DignidadLiteraria Meets Macmillan.” Library Journal 145, no. 3 (March 2020): 12.
Rodgers, Linda. “11-Year-Old Forms Books n Bros.” School Library Journal 63, no. 5 (May 2017): 12.
Shofmann. “Inclusive Internship Initiative.” Public Library Association (PLA), June 2, 2020. http://www.ala.org/pla/initiatives/plinterns.
Thoet, Alison. “13-Year-Old Founder of #1000blackgirlbooks Shares Some of Her Favorite Reads.” PBS. Public Broadcasting Service, February 16, 2018. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/13-year-old-founder-of-1000blackgirlbooks-shares-some-of-her-favorite-reads.
“An Updated Look at Diversity in Children.” School Library Journal, June 19, 2019. https://www.slj.com/?detailStory=an-updated-look-at-diversity-in-childrens-books.
 “Newsmaker: Sonia Sotomayor,” American Libraries 50 (2019): pp. 24-25, 24.
 “Newsmaker: Sonia Sotomayor,” American Libraries 50 (2019): pp. 24-25, 24.
 Allison Marcote, “Newsmaker: Tomi Adeyemi,” American Libraries Magazine, June 3, 2019, https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2019/06/03/newsmaker-tomi-adeyemi/.
 L. M. Montgomery, “Anne of Avonlea,” in Anne of Avonlea (Toronto: McClelland-Bantam, Inc., 1909), pp. 327-327.
 Alison Thoet, “13-Year-Old Founder of #1000blackgirlbooks Shares Some of Her Favorite Reads,” PBS (Public Broadcasting Service, February 16, 2018), https://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/13-year-old-founder-of-1000blackgirlbooks-shares-some-of-her-favorite-reads.
 Linda Rodgers, “11-Year-Old Forms Books n Bros,” School Library Journal 63, no. 5 (May 2017): p. 12.
 Linda Rodgers, “11-Year-Old Forms Books n Bros,” School Library Journal 63, no. 5 (May 2017): p. 12.
 “An Updated Look at Diversity in Children,” School Library Journal, June 19, 2019, https://www.slj.com/?detailStory=an-updated-look-at-diversity-in-childrens-books.
 Lisa Peet, “#DignidadLiteraria Meets Macmillan,” Library Journal 145, no. 3 (March 2020): p. 12.
 Ana K Marcelo and Tuppet M Yates, “Young Children’s Ethnic-Racial Identity Moderates the Impact of Early Discrimination Experiences on Child Behavior Problems,” Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology 25, no. 3 (2019): pp. 253-265, 253.
 Ana K Marcelo and Tuppet M Yates, “Young Children’s Ethnic-Racial Identity Moderates the Impact of Early Discrimination Experiences on Child Behavior Problems,” Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology 25, no. 3 (2019): pp. 253-265, 254
 Judi Moreillon, “The Mighty Picturebook: Providing a Plethora of Possibilities,” Children & Libraries 15, no. 3 (2017): pp. 17-19, 17.
 Judi Moreillon, “The Mighty Picturebook: Providing a Plethora of Possibilities,” Children & Libraries 15, no. 3 (2017): pp. 17-19, 19.
 Wanda Brooks and Jonda C McNair, “‘But This Story of Mine Is Not Unique’: A Review of Research on African American Children’s Literature,” Review of Educational Research 79, no. 1 (March 2009): pp. 125-162, 130.
 Wanda Brooks and Jonda C McNair, “‘But This Story of Mine Is Not Unique’: A Review of Research on African American Children’s Literature,” Review of Educational Research 79, no. 1 (March 2009): pp. 125-162, 129.
 Wanda Brooks and Jonda C McNair, “‘But This Story of Mine Is Not Unique’: A Review of Research on African American Children’s Literature,” Review of Educational Research 79, no. 1 (March 2009): pp. 125-162, 145.
 “Own Voices,” The Seattle Public Library, accessed March 16, 2021, https://seattle.bibliocommons.com/list/share/628692720/1259856807#:~:text=%23OwnVoices%20is%20a%20term%20coined,character%20from%20an%20underrepresented%20group.
 Wanda Brooks and Jonda C McNair, “‘But This Story of Mine Is Not Unique’: A Review of Research on African American Children’s Literature,” Review of Educational Research 79, no. 1 (March 2009): pp. 125-162, 151
 Wanda Brooks and Jonda C McNair, “‘But This Story of Mine Is Not Unique’: A Review of Research on African American Children’s Literature,” Review of Educational Research 79, no. 1 (March 2009): pp. 125-162, 153
 Judith Lysaker and Clare Tonge, “Learning to Understand Others Through Relationally Oriented Reading,” The Reading Teacher 66, no. 8 (2013): pp. 632-641, 634.
 Elisa Gall, “Empower Kids with #OwnVoices,” School Library Journal 63, no. 5 (May 2017): p. 14
 Shofmann, “Inclusive Internship Initiative,” Public Library Association (PLA), June 2, 2020, http://www.ala.org/pla/initiatives/plinterns.
 Ana K Marcelo and Tuppet M Yates, “Young Children’s Ethnic-Racial Identity Moderates the Impact of Early Discrimination Experiences on Child Behavior Problems,” Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology 25, no. 3 (2019): pp. 253-265, 261.