The school year begins the second week of August this year. The last time I started a school year in person with 4- and 5-year-olds was August of 2019. The world was a much different place.
Events have changed the way we think about race in both the children’s publishing world and the education world. The conversations are difficult and strained. It’s hard to hold a mirror up and see your collective misgivings. Especially, when you don’t want to.
I am returning to the classroom this year with a commitment to examine my own internal biases so that I may make more balanced choices regarding the picture books I read to my young students.
I know many of you are familiar with this statement by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, Professor Emerita of Education at Ohio State University
“Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created and recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books. (1990, p. ix)”
Centering diversity and decentering white culture is extremely important for children of color. The kidlit community as well as many in education are beginning to acknowledge this. But what about children who identify as white? Is it important to be mindful of the books we read to these children? Do they need exposure to books with non-white protagonists? Books written and/or illustrated by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) creators?
As an author, I just sent my editor my author’s note for my upcoming picture book, Egyptian Lullaby, about daily life in Cairo. As I was writing the author’s note I realized that, although I hope that Arab children see themselves in the Egyptian American protagonist, my deepest hope is to normalize the Arab culture for the dominant/white culture to break through destructive stereotypes.
I have taught all over Los Angeles over the past 30+ years, in predominantly black communities and Latinx and Mexican American communities. Currently, I teach on the west side of the city where many of my students are white.
I can see that it is equally important for my white students to see themselves in a different way. To understand that they live in a diverse world... To see themselves as a part of a whole... To see that they are not more valuable than BIPOC children...
If I don’t address this… If I don’t normalize diversity… If I don’t de-center the stories white children experience that reinforce their privileged position in the world…If I don’t bring the stories into balance, nothing will change. And as an educator, I feel responsible for helping bring about change, otherwise I am part of the problem.
How can I expect people who identify with the white culture to see themselves as anything but entitled and at the top of the hierarchy if I keep reading books to young white children that reinforce that they are? How can I expect the paradigm to shift if I don’t shift it as a kindergarten teacher and a kidlit author?
I can help change perceptions with the simple act of paying attention to the picture books I use in my classroom. I can create a balanced view of the world and better serve both BIPOC and white students by examining my own internal biases and widening the lens in which I portray the world to them.
I imagine picking up a camera with a telephoto lens. That lens draws the eye to one small part of the picture and exaggerates its value. A wide-angle lens extends beyond the telephoto’s margins, bringing the marginalized out of the margins and including them in the whole picture in its totality. No one should feel marginalized. It’s up to me to change the lens both as an educator and a children’s book author.
As a kindergarten teacher, I am constantly evaluating my reading choices. I have discovered that I don’t include enough books with BIPOC protagonists. I have an awful lot of books that feature animals in stories that are told through a white lens. Many of my stories with BIPOC protagonists are stories of struggle, resistance, and resilience. I think it’s the activist in me that draws me to these stories. It’s totally out of balance and helps create a single narrative which is ultimately destructive.
So, my own discoveries about myself and my internal biases have lead to changes I will implement this August…
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Here is a list of some of the books I recommend to center diversity in your reading list:
1. The Day You Begin written by Jacqueline Woodson illustrated by Rafael Lopez
2. Dreamers written and illustrated by Yuyi Morales
3. Sonadores written and illustrated by Yuyi Morales
4. Carmela Full of Wishes written by matt De La Pena illustrated by Christian Robinson
5. The Arabic Quilt: An Immigrant Story written by Aya Khalil illustrated by Anait Semirdzhyan
6. Eyes That Kiss In The Corners written by Joanna Ho Illustrated by Dung Ho
7. Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story written by Kevin Noble Maillard illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal
8. The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family written by Ibtihaj Muhammad illustrated by Hatem Aly
9. Mi Papi Has a Motorcycle written by Isabel Quintero illustrated by Zeke Pena
10. Water Protectors written by Carole Lindstrom illustrated by Michaela Goade
11. (Chapter book series) Farah Rocks New Beginnings written by Susan Muaddi Darraj Illustrated by Ruaida Mannaa
12. Cora Cooks Pancit written by Dorina K. Lazo Gilmore illustrated by Kristi Valiant
13. Antiracist Baby by Ibram X Kendi illustrated by Ashley Lukashevsky
14. (Early Reader series) Ty's Travels written by Kelly Starling Lyons illustrated by Nina Mata
15. Alex’s Good Fortune by Benson Shum
16. Alma by Juana Martinez-Neal
17. I Dream of PoPo by Livia Blackburne illustrated by Julia Kuo
18. Watercress by Andrea Wang illustrated by Jason Chin
19. Amy Wu & the perfect bao by Kat Zhang illustrated by Charlene Chua
20. Be A Friend by Salina Yoon
21. A is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara
22. A Ride to Remember by Sharon Langley and Amy Nathan, illustrated by Floyd Cooper
23. The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Kadir Nelson
24. Unspeakable by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Floyd Cooper
25. Red Shoes by Karen English illustrated by Ebony Glenn
26. Double Bass Blues by Andrea J Loney illustrated by Rudy Gutierrez
27. Take a Picture of Me, James Van Der Zee! by Andrea J Loney illustrated by Keith Mallett
28. Little Seeds of Promise by Sana Rafi illustrated by Renia Metallinou
29. Finding Om by Rashmi Bismark illustrated by Morgan Huff
30. Dalia's Wondrous Hair by Laura Lacamara
31. Feliz New Year, Ava Gabriela by Alexandra Alessandri illustrated by Addy Rivera Sonda
32. Egyptian Lullaby, by Zeena M. Pliska, illustrated by Hatem Aly; published by Roaring Brook Press (Coming June 2022)
WEBSITES, BLOGS & PODCASTS
(Lists compiled by Zeena M. Pliska, Andrea J. Loney, Benson Shum, and Sharon Langley