Julián loves mermaids. With his vivid imagination, he sees them everywhere – in ladies at the community pool, in girls playing in an open hydrant. He likes to imagine he’s one too, with beautiful flowing hair and a long glimmering tail. One day while his Abuela is in the bath, he takes down some curtains to make a tail and puts on a potted fern for long, flowing hair. He swishes through the rooms, when his Abuela suddenly comes out from her bath. “Come here,” she says.
Is she angry? Is he in trouble? No. Smiling, his Abuela hands him an intricate necklace, completing his mermaid costume. In that simple gesture, we understand that Julián’s individuality is celebrated; that he is loved and accepted.
A group of 50 kindergarteners also felt loved and accepted for what makes them different and special as they listened to the story Julián Is a Mermaid read aloud by NEA President Lily Eskelsen García.
The February 28 reading event was at Ashlawn Elementary School in Arlington, Va. and was sponsored by NEA and the Welcoming Schools Program at the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation, to support and celebrate our nation’s transgender and non-binary students.
It also marks the beginning of the 2019 Read Across America celebration and its focus on diversity in children’s literature. Eskelsen García’s book, Julián Is a Mermaid, is one of 36 diverse books highlighted in NEA’s Read Across America calendar that reflect the wide range of races, cultures, and identities of public school students across the country.
“NEA believes diverse literature enables students to see themselves as the heroes of the story, while also showing them that all kinds of people can be the heroes too,” said Eskelsen García. “It is important that we emphasize books that are telling children of color or of different gender identities that they belong in the world and the world belongs to them.”
An estimated 45 million educators, parents, and students across the U.S. will participate in Read Across America events this year, which is the 22nd year of NEA’s Read Across America. Since 1997, when a NEA reading task force suggested a day of reading to emphasize the fun and adventure of reading, NEA has called on every community to enjoy the benefits of reading.
Video: NEA President Lily Eskelsen García on Why We Need Diverse Books
This year NEA launched the Read Across America digital calendar so educators, librarians, and families can plan ahead for special celebrations and observances throughout the school year. Each month lists suggested books for readers of all levels, plus activities and resources to help create learning experiences around them. All of the educator-recommended books feature diverse characters, settings, and plotlines.
“As a gay man, I know that had I been sitting in this classroom as a child, listening to a story about a boy who wants to be a mermaid, I would have felt understood and welcomed, even if my peers didn’t share my experience,” said Jaim Foster, who hosted the reading event in his kindergarten classroom at Ashlawn. “That is the power of books. When you see someone who looks like you or shares your experience, you feel less alone and that you belong in your classroom, in your community, and in the world.”
Want Diversity, Hope and Healing? Open a Book
Booklists are brimming with notable children’s and young adult (YA), many of which are diverse books that grapple with tough topics like mental illness and racism while also conveying messages of hope and unity. Here are a few top picks.
Author Matt de la Peña: Diverse Books Empower Students
Matt de la Peña was a racially confused, working class kid who grew up to write books about racially confused, working class kids, but the universality and humanity of his characters will speak to young readers from any background.