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I’ve had the privilege and joy of teaching Children’s Literature to undergraduate students, primarily elementary education majors, who are mostly early 20-somethings and from diverse racial backgrounds, this semester.
I showed the class the 2016 Tedx Talks video, “Missing Adventures: Diversity and Children’s Literature,” in which Brynn Welch argues that we need more diversity. She argues essentially what my cousin, Abby, an educator, recently stated to me, which is that “Books need to be both ‘windows and mirrors’ for kids, allowing them to understand someone else’s experience and to see their own as a valuable part of society.” Welch revealed that less than nine percent of children’s books with human characters contain protagonists of color, white still being the “default setting.” Most of my students were taken aback, understandably, by this statistic.
In the freewrite that followed, a couple of my Latinx students wrote that they had grown up with books containing white protagonists, never seeing themselves reflected in the writing, and equally as awful, never questioning it. It reminded me of growing up in the 70’s and 80’s with mainly male protagonists in children’s and young adult novels, many of which employed the generic “he,” and never questioning it. This is one way that we internalize that our voices don’t matter – whether as persons of color, as females, or as any other individuals who are not able to see their own reflections in the “mirrors” that are kids’ books. Another group that we discussed that day was Native Americans and lack of contemporary representation thereof. One student admitted, “I didn’t even know there still were Native Americans until I entered middle school. I thought they were all gone.”
At the end of the period, a student and I were the last two left the room. She’s the mother of two children, one bi-racial and the other, Mexican American. I, myself, am the mother of a mestiza who is half-white/non-Hispanic, half-white/Hispanic. We talked about how hard it is to find children’s books that reflect bi-racial or bi-ethnic identities, but how important it is for our kids to feel as though they belong. I said, “When Jianna was little, she looked dark next to my white friends’ kids and white next to her half-brother’s Latinx family.” She vigorously nodded.
Last week, I graded the students’ freewrites. For Part II, I had asked students what they thought was still missing, four years post-video, that they would like to see reflected more prominently in children’s literature. Our class wish list is as follows:
- Bi-racial families
- Family type diversity (not just Mom and Dad), including same-sex parents as a norm
- LGBTQ+ representation
- Social class discussion
- Work ethic focus
- Routes to success, in addition to college and military
- Mental health issue discussion
- Grief/death processing
- Puberty conversation
- People with physical disabilities
- Protagonists of color in which issues of race are not the focus
- Racism in a contemporary context
While I realize that strides in literature have been made over the past four years, we need to make certain that they continue, preferably at a faster pace, so as to be more reflective of contemporary society. In “Missing Adventures,” Brynn Welch reminds viewers that we show what we support, in part, through our spending. This year, if you can, please consider voting with your wallet by purchasing diverse children’s books as presents for the kiddos in your life — including white children — to help prevent raising kids who see the white race as “default”!
#diversechildrensbooks #childrensliterature #kidsbooks