A culminating activity for our Book Love unit asks eighth graders to craft #WeNeedDiverseBooks statements that reflect their passion for diversity in the books they read. For those of you unfamiliar with the hashtag campaign, #WeNeedDiverseBooks began as a grassroots organization in 2014 and has grown into an influential advocacy nonprofit whose mission is “putting more books featuring diverse characters into the hands of all children.”
At the start of our reading unit, students reflected on the 2015 and 2018 diversity in children’s books graphic (compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison). Many students were both surprised and appalled to learn that animal main characters enjoyed the most growth in representation compared to characters of color and Native characters. Students were then asked to reflect in their journals on the diversity in their own reading lists since the start of the 2020-21 school year. Students spoke honestly and with sincerity that while they felt it was important to read widely, many admitted that the books they were reading were written by white authors featuring white characters.
As a next step, my colleague and I reinforced the importance of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s work of “mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors.” We designed several weeks worth of book talks featuring recent publications of diverse authors giving voice to diverse characters and experiences. We encourage our students to maintain a diverse reading list and set new “window” goals, where the primary objective is to gain a view into someone else’s experience.
Year after year, middle school students’ passions to make a difference and change the world for the better never fails to impress me. Their eagerness and openness to reading through a much wider lens as a means to better understand the world and themselves is heartening, especially after the past four years where hateful and intolerant rhetoric dominated the news headlines.
As educators, we, too, must continue to be advocates for change in children’s publishing. We need to request, read, and promote books with diverse perspectives and experiences. We need to add titles written by diverse authors with diverse characters to our own “to read lists” and get them into the hands of our students. All students in our classrooms need to see themselves reflected in the books they read and connect to characters whose experiences and identities differ from their own. The books we share, read, and add to our classroom shelves are a reflection of our values, in particular, of whose experiences and identities we legitimize and validate.
I look forward to the powerful #WeNeedDiverseBooks statements my students will write over the next week. Their insights and commitment to reading advocacy will continue to enlighten and influence my own reading life.
A sample from my own 2020-21 reading list.
Parachutes, Kelly Yang
Just Mercy, Bryan Stevensen
The Gravity of Us, Phil Stamper
Dear Martin, Nic Stone
Slay, Brittney Morris
Other Words for Home, Jasmine Warga
Grown, Tiffany Jackson
Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish by Pablo Cartaya
I’m Not Dying with You Tonight, Kimberly Jones & Gilly Segal
You Should See Me in a Crown, Leah Johnson
This Is My America, Kim Johnson
King & the Dragonflies, by Kacen Callender
Punching the Sky, Ibi Zoboi & Yusef Salaam
Legendborn, Tracy Deonn
Flamer, Mike Curato
Furia, Yamie Saied Mendez
Skyhunter, Marie Lu
We Are Not Free Traci Chee
Everything Sad Is Untrue, Daniel Nayeri
Poisoned Water, Candy Cooper