No matter what she tried, the group of African-American boys refused to read books offered by Amanda Hahn, a librarian at East Hills Middle School in Bethlehem, Pa. She remembers the exact moment things changed. When she “gave them copies of Walter Dean Myers’ Slam and Somewhere in the Darkness,” Hahn says, “they grew excited about reading and couldn’t get enough.”
It wasn’t, Hahn discovered, that the students couldn’t or wouldn’t read. Rather, they hadn’t found books that they wanted to read—books with characters who looked like them and with whom the students felt a connection.
As classroom demographics continue to change dramatically— not only in terms of ethnic diversity, but also in linguistic diversity, sexual orientation and identification, and physical and learning disabilities— there is a growing need to diversify school and classroom book collections.
For Hahn and her fellow librarians and teachers, books are an effective way to help students understand each other.
“I want books that reflect the life and world our kids are experiencing,” explains Hahn, who encourages new and veteran teachers to reach out to school librarians for help in building their collections. “I’m always on the lookout for books that feature a wide range of characters and experiences because I know these are the
books my students are hungry for,” she adds.
Changing the publishing and reading landscape is exactly why young adult authors Ellen Oh and Malinda Lo created We Need Diverse Books (WNDB), an organization of authors, illustrators, and publishers that addresses the lack of diverse, non-majority narratives in children’s literature.
“We recognize all diverse experiences,” explains Oh, the organization’s president. “This includes but is not limited to people of color, gender diversity, sexual identity, people with disabilities, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities. Our mission is to promote or amplify diversification efforts and increase visibility for diverse books and authors, with a goal of empowering a wide range of readers in the process,” Oh says.
To meet that goal, WNDB posts links and book lists with a wide range of diverse books, showcases interviews with authors, and maintains a Tumblr page with photos of students, educators, librarians, and parents calling out for more diverse books.
Students in teacher and author Shelbi Wescott’s language arts classroom at Centennial High School in Portland, Ore., posted their photo and this message:
We are Black, White, Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern, Eastern European, Hispanic, autistic, gay, straight, bisexual, asexual, transgendered. We are real readers and we want books where the main characters look and act like us.
“These students will be happy to know we recently created a grants program to help writers from diverse backgrounds write and publish their books,” says Oh. “And we’ll be working with NEA’s Read Across America on a diverse classrooms initiative to bring our books and authors to schools and classrooms around the country.”
“That’s music to my ears,” says school librarian Hahn. “Any time I can find books and resources that will resonate with my students it’s a gift. They’re hungry for stories and characters who speak to them.”
Video:The Real Reason We Need Diverse Books