A Celebration of Diverse Books and Readers

Hundreds of third and fourth graders in a rainbow of Read Across America T-shirts packed into the NEA auditorium in Washington, D.C., today to kick off March’s month-long reading celebration.

“This is such a special day,” NEA President Lily Eskelsen García told the students, who came from diverse schools across D.C.’s Maryland suburbs. “We are going to celebrate Read Across America for the whole month because there are so many good books to read! Books about different cultures, races, languages, and traditions.”

This year’s theme is “Celebrating a Nation of Diverse Readers” and the event showcased best-selling diverse authors Kwame Alexander (Booked, Crossover), Jesse J. Holland (Who is the Black Panther?), and Gene Luen Yang (Secret Coders, American Born Chinese, Shadow Hero) as well as 20 authors of diverse books featured in the Read Across America Resource Calendar. The books are not only written by diverse authors about diverse characters, but they are written in diverse formats – graphic novels, comics, poetry, and prose – which allows students to enter the world of reading through the doorway that appeals most to them.

Gene Luen Yang told the gathered students to always try new things, and to keep trying. He told them about his “Reading Without Walls” challenge, which encourages students to “read a book about a character who doesn’t look like you or live like you, read a book about a topic you don’t know much about, and read a book in a format that you don’t normally read for fun. This might be a chapter book, a graphic novel, a book in verse, a picture book, or a hybrid book.”

“Our students need to see themselves in what they’re reading,” says Judy Marable, a reading specialist who came with her students from Flintstone Elementary in Oxon Hill. “When they see themselves in the characters, or in the authors, they realize they can have different careers, lifestyles, and adventures – that everything is open to them, not just to some. Books open their eyes and their worlds.”

Books have opened the eyes of Madison Bartley, a third grader at Paint Branch Elementary School in College Park, Maryland. She says she loves reading, and her current favorite is the Dog Man comic book series by Dav Pilkey about a “crime biting” canine.

“I like the books because they are comics and because Dog Man explores the world,” Bartley says.

The students divided up into groups for a series of reading and writing activities led by volunteers and local authors, like Leah Henderson, who wrote One Shadow on the Wall, a middle grade book set in contemporary Senegal that focuses on family, unexpected friendships, courage, and creating your own future.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for me to interact with students and share our enthusiasm for books, especially diverse books,” Henderson says. “We’re fortunate now that there’s much more diversity in children’s literature. Now, rather than just one book where students might see themselves, there are four or more books to choose from. It increases self-esteem and courage when you see characters who look like you, and also helps encourage a love of reading.”

NEA and Reading is Fundamental (RIF) co-sponsored the Read Across America event to celebrate Dr. Seuss’ 114th birthday. An estimated 45 million educators, parents, and students will participate today and tomorrow in events nationwide.