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10 Steps to Promote Diversity in Children's Literature

by Wade Hudson

This article and the Diverse Books Pledge were developed by Wade Hudson following his participation in Day of Diversity, sponsored by the Association for Library Services to Children and the Children’s Book Council during American Library Association Mid-Winter 2015.

The lack of real diversity in children’s literature is a problem that has been difficult to conquer. Many have confronted it over the years, doing what they could to effect important change. In 1920, W.E.B. DuBois, Jessie Fausett and Augustus G. Dill established The Brownies Book, a monthly magazine that writer and university associate professor Katharine Capshaw Smith cites as “the beginning of Black children’s literature.”

During the decades that followed, Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps, Effie Lee Newsome, playwright Willis Richardson, artist Lois Mailou Jones and others continued to produce works that helped to move Black children’s literature forward. In 1965, The Council on Interracial Books for Children was formed to “promote and develop children's literature that adequately reflects a multiracial society.” In 1969, Where Does the Day Go, written by Walter Dean Myers, won a Council contest and became the celebrated author’s first published book. In 1968, To Be a Slave, by Julius Lester, illustrated by Tom Feelings, was published (and earned a 1968 Newberry Honor). Virginia Hamilton’s first book, Zeely, was published in 1969. In 1970, the Ethnic & Multicultural Information Exchange Round Table of the American Library Association established the Coretta Scott King Award to recognize outstanding works for children written by African Americans.

Other awards recognizing the outstanding works of writers and illustrators of color followed, including the Pura Belpré Award. During the past several decades, independent presses such as JustUs Books, Lee & Low Books, Arte Publico Press, Cinco Puntos, and others, have led the charge – dedicating their catalogs to quality books for children and young adults that reflect our nation’s diversity. Major publishers have added to the number of diverse books as well. Yet, real diversity in children’s literature remains a goal rather than a reality. (see: “Where are the People of Color in Children’s Books” by the late Walter Dean Myers.)

The truth is, children’s book publishing faces the same challenges that society faces when it comes to ethnic, racial and gender fairness, equity and justice. But, just as in society, we all must play a role if we are to make change that is transformative.

The Diverse Books Pledge below offers steps anyone can take to help ensure that literature for our children and young people is truly representative of who we are as a diverse world.

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Exploring Black Images in African-American Children's Literature

 

“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” —words spoken in the Disney movie, “Snow White”
“Who can be born black and not exalt?” —Mari Evans, author, I Am A Black Woman
 
“The seeds of an African American children’s literature were sown in the soil of Black people’s struggles for liberation, literacy, and survival.” —Rudine Sims Bishop, educator-author, Free Within Ourselves: The Development of African American Children’s Literature

Images bombard children and adults on a daily basis via television, videos, advertisements, movies, textbooks, newspapers/magazines and social media. Although some of these images are positive, many are negative and simply perpetuate and reinforce age-old stereotypes of race, gender and social class without a balanced regard for the portrayal of true diversity within our country and our world. 

 
When assessing the impact of imagery on the psyche of all children, but upon Black children in particular, it is important to know who is telling the story and who is painting the pictures. It is essential that we tell our own stories.
 
As an author and publisher of Just Us Books, I’m committed to helping present authentic and realistic stories, illustrated with images that reflect and reinforce positive and realistic aspects of being born Black and living on this planet. That means embracing authentic stories told by us, in our voices, from our perspectives, lenses and brushstrokes. It means rejecting messages of inferiority, mediocrity, marginality, assumed deviant behavior and demonstrating clearly through our books that “Black lives matter.”
 
The books and materials selected for this display are a small sampling of works from the canon of African-American literature for children. This literary canon includes a wide range of books, which mirror and reflect the diversity of our history, culture and experiences as members of the African diaspora. Included are alphabet books, counting books, baby board books, illustrated nursery rhymes, folktales, picture books, biographies, novelty books, fantasy, comic books, and covers of some books for middle grade and young adult readers.

These books are filled with skillful and thought-provoking illustrations in a variety of styles, whose imagery serves to teach, entertain and illuminate. Within them, Black culture is represented in all its variety and is not simply relegated to a narrow shelf of historical stories about slavery, civil rights and selected biographies of familiar Black personalities.

While many of the books displayed are published by major commercial houses, it should be noted that a very important component of presenting positive imagery of Black culture is the work done by independent Black presses and self-published authors. Literature from independent presses offers a wealth of creative works for young readers.

Many books displayed in these cases are available from your public library. Many are also available for purchase from booksellers and make valuable additions to your own home libraries.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, where are the fairest books of all?

The word “fair” has so many meanings: pretty, light complexioned, equal. However, in terms of the power of imagery and illustrations, when thinking about “fairness” in publishing books for children, the answer the mirror gives should not consistently be “Snow White,” which in essence reflects dominance of an all-white world of children’s book publishing. (See Nancy Larrick’s article from September 11, 1965).

Children’s books should be inclusive and representative of diverse cultures. That means they should include the beauty and richness of the Black experience and the vision of Black illustrators as well as others who have traditionally illustrated children’s books. Black children should be able to see images of themselves in the literature that they read. Fairness then means equity and expansion of publishing boundaries so that children’s literature is inclusive of the multicultural diversity of our world.

This article was written as a contribution to the Newark Public Library's exhibit, My Soul Has Grown Deep, celebrating African-American literature. 

 

 Additional Resources

1. The Brown Bookshelf   https://thebrownbookshelf.com

Best for finding black-interest and multicultural books for young readers. This site also features spotlights and interviews with Black authors and illustrators.

2. African American Literature Book Club  https://aalbc.com/

Excellent for finding comprehensive information and resources about Black book publishing, Black book creators, booksellers and book fairs.

3. Best for Tough Topics: Teaching Tolerance

Along with an excellent blog that tackles some of the more difficult aspects of education, Teaching Tolerance offers activities and teaching kits on topics ranging from the civil rights movement to the separation of church and state.

4. Best for Young Readers: Scholastic Kids

At Scholastic Kids, students can post book reviews, get reading recommendations, play games based on the latest series, watch "Meet the Author" videos, and more. It's like Facebook for reading and it's safe for school, too.

5. Best for Finding Books: Book Wizard

Use Scholastic’s Book Wizard to level your classroom library, discover resources for the books you teach, and find books at just the right level for students with Guided Reading, Lexile® Measure, and DRA levels for children's books.

6. Best for Craft Projects: Crayola For Educators

With hundreds of lessons for every grade level, you're guaranteed to find a colorful idea for your class, such as the "Chinese Dragon Drum" for Lunar New Year or a unit on Chinese culture, or the "What Do You Love?" project for Valentine's Day.

7. Best Way to Start the Day: Daily Starters

Establish a morning routine with Scholastic's Daily Starters — fun, fast math and language arts prompts and questions, including Teachable Moments from history and Fun Facts, such as "Before erasers, people used a piece of bread!" Sort by grade (PreK–8), and project them onto your interactive whiteboard or print copies for your students.

8. Best for Writing: Education Northwest

The creators of the 6+1 traits of writing offer a terrific overview of the model on their site, with research to support the program, lesson plans, writing prompts, and rubrics. You can also find writing samples to practice scoring and see how other teachers scored the same piece.

9. Best Online Dictionary: Wordsmyth

Add the beginner's version of the Wordsmyth widget to your toolbar, and students can look up new vocabulary no matter where they are online.

10. Best Math Games: National Library of Virtual Manipulatives

At the National Library of Virtual Manipulatives, you'll find activities for every area of math at every grade level. Need to teach shapes to preschoolers, for example? Try the Attribute Blocks, which challenge students to sort virtual objects. Working on functions with middle schoolers? Drop numbers into the function machine to identify the pattern.

11. Best for Geography: Google Earth

Zoom over the Sahara desert. Fly past the streets where your students live. Take a tour of the Eiffel Tower. You can do it all with Google Earth, the tool that makes the world feel a little bit smaller with its map-generating capabilities. If you're new to Google Earth, the tutorials offer a great introduction.

12. Best for History: EDSITEment

This fantastic site, developed by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Trust for the Humanities, offers lesson plans as well as primary sources, videos, and photos for a wide range of humanities topics. And it's all free!

13. Best for Science: National Science Teachers Association

The National Science Teachers Association site is a goldmine for classroom teachers who may not feel as comfortable teaching geology and astronomy as they do reading and arithmetic. You'll find journal articles, experiment ideas, and a roundup of the latest science stories in the news.

14. Best for Current Events: Scholastic News

For topics too current for textbooks, Scholastic News classroom magazines offer engaging nonfiction reading online, drawn from the latest headlines. Subscribe to receive news-related, age-appropriate Common Core lesson plans and skills sheets, and free access to the app that comes with each issue.

15. Best for Middle School: Underlined 

Underlined allows young writers to post their work, receive criticism, and read others' contributions. From fan fiction to poetry to novels-in-progress, all types of writing are encouraged and shared. Be aware that not all content is school appropriate.

16. Best for Virtual Trips: Smithsonian Education

The Smithsonian offers thousands of resources for educators, including lesson plans, virtual tours of their latest exhibits, and the opportunity to connect with experts in the field. In one lesson, "Final Farewells," students can see a school yearbook from the Civil War era up close, and discuss how the political climate may have affected the content.

17. Best Multimedia Tool: Glogster

Glogster bills itself as a tool for making interactive posters, or glogs, containing pictures, text, video, links, and animation. A glog on To Kill a Mockingbird might contain a link to the Scottsboro trial, a clip from the Gregory Peck movie, and a drawing of the tree where Boo Radley leaves gifts for Scout. Fun!

18. Best for the Interactive Whiteboard: SMART Exchange

Go to SMART Exchange before creating any lessons for your interactive whiteboard from scratch. Chances are you'll find an existing lesson ready to grab and go, or inspiration from other teachers who've taught the same material. Plus, the customizable Whack-A-Mole game is a must-have for test prep and review.

19. Best for Interactive Whiteboard Help: Promethean Planet

Even if you've deemed yourself an interactive whiteboard pro, Promethean's teacher community offers a boatload of tips and practical advice you'll find useful. Find help the next time your toolbox goes missing, or if you want to punch up a lesson with cool graphics.

20. Best for Online Classroom Workspaces: Wikispaces Classroom

Wikispaces Classroom walks you through process of creating an online classroom workspace that's private and customizable. It works across browers, tablets, and phones, and can be used for day-to-day classroom management, tracking formative assessments in real-time, and connecting with students and parents in and out of the classroom.

21. Best for Video Clips: TeacherTube

TeacherTube is the best source for instructional videos in a safe environment. We especially love the clips of teachers showing off the catchy rhymes they've made up to teach certain topics — check out the "Mrs. Burk Perimeter Rap" and the "Mr. Duey Fractions Rap."

22. Best for Moviemaking: PowToon

Moviemaking has never been easier than it is at PowToon. To create a short animated clip, all you have to do is write a script and choose characters and other graphics using a simple drag-and-drop tool. The classroom possibilities are endless — challenge kids to write an additional scene for a book you are reading in English class, or have one character explain the water cycle to another for a science project.

23. Best Standards Help: Common Core State Standards Initiative

This site not only offers an overview of the Common Core State Standards, but provides a thoughtful framework for how the standards were determined and what we can reasonably expect students at given grade levels to achieve.

24. Best for Tough Topics: Teaching Tolerance

Along with an excellent blog that tackles some of the more difficult aspects of education, Teaching Tolerance offers activities and teaching kits on topics ranging from the civil rights movement to the separation of church and state.

25. Best Professional Development On the Go: Annenberg Learner

Many of the PD series from the Annenberg Foundation are available on demand here, with videos on teaching measurement, writing workshop, and more. You'll see master teachers at work and undoubtedly snag an idea or two for your own classroom.

26. Best for Your Career: National Education Association

In the hustle and bustle of the classroom, it can be easy to lose track of the outside forces affecting education. The National Education Association explains how to take action regarding the issues you care about most — including merit pay, the No Child Left Behind Act, and funding for education.

27. Best for Inspiration: Scholastic Top Teaching Blog

Reading the Top Teaching blog is like paging through a cooking magazine. Just as you might be inspired to try a 12-course meal instead of your usual mac and cheese, you'll leave wanting to push your teaching to the next level. No matter what you're interested in — Pinterest-worthy bulletin boards, savvy tech-integration tips, or how to save money on classroom materials — these veteran teachers' wealth of experience and knowledge will leave you satiated.

28. Best of Facebook: Scholastic Teachers

So we may be biased, but we think you'll find our page your most useful one on Facebook by far. Each week, you'll find free printables, lesson plan and craft ideas, frequent giveaways, and note-worthy news. All you have to do is "like" us. And stand by for the fascinating discussion that happens on our page, including the 10 O'Clock Teacher Question, posed by — and answered by — teachers like you.