A few months ago one of my kids came into the library asking me for books on basketball. I led her to the 700s and showed her the books we had, paying particular attention to the new NBA set we bought last spring. The young lady said, “No, that’s not it. I want a book about basketball for me.” The young lady was in a wheelchair.
I was stumped. I’ve known her for a few years now and I tend to forget that she’s in a wheelchair. It’s just a part of who she is and I never give it a second thought. But that day I faced a problem that unsettled me a bit. First, I had no books to meet her needs. Second, I had no idea what her life was like in that wheelchair. Finally, I had no idea she played basketball! How great is that?! At the same time I felt excited and proud of this little ball of sunshine who let nothing stand in her way to living her life the way she wanted to live it, I also felt terrible that I had never taken into account her needs as a reader. I immediately looked for resources for her, but I found next to nothing. It was a bit of a downer for both us.
When we think of diversity we too often think only of race. I grew up in an area with few people who weren’t Caucasian, so as long as we read a book about Martin Luther King, Jr. in February we were set. I see the fallacy of that situation now. We had no sense of urgency to represent people who weren’t like us because, for the most part, we all seemed so much to be the same. To make matters worse, as a child I attended a school system that exhibited behaviors that were, at times, openly racist. I have a picture in one of my old photo albums of a group of teachers performing a skit at the school’s talent show in black face. As a kid I had no idea what that was meant to portray. But I do now and it makes me ashamed ever to have been a part of it.
As a librarian, I see how school libraries are uniquely positioned to impact all students and their families within the school. A collection must have resources available that reflect all the students it serves. That is not to say that every child must read every selection. The ultimate goal is that a child can come into the library and find a book in which he or she can relate, in which characters and situations are familiar and comforting.
As a parent, I see the world changing quickly. My children live in a globally connected society that I never imagined possible when I was their age. In our own neighborhood we have families of various races, religions, nationalities, and sexual orientations. Even in our own family we have a uniquely diverse lifestyle: All of our children are adopted. I want my children to see a world full of possibilities, a place where they can learn something new by seeing the world from different perspectives. My oldest son’s best friend is a Muslim of Iranian heritage. My youngest daughter’s best friends (they change every day) are a mixture of ethnicities. In our home differences are celebrated and respect of others is demanded.
Consider the follow list of categories that represent categories of diversity:
- Geographic location
- Country of Origin
- Family dynamic
- Foster care
- Sexual orientation
- Physical attributes
- Medical diagnosis
- Mental Illness
- Economic class
Look at the list again. Now consider what we think of when we think diversity. I’m willing to bet that 90%+ of the time we automatically think about race. As you can see from this list (and it’s an incomplete list, frankly!) diversity means so much more!
What can we do to support diversity in our library collections? We must demand it from the publishers who produce our books. We must communicate with authors of diverse backgrounds to encourage them to develop characters that represent varieties of people from all walks of life. We must encourage writers to keep stereotypes out so that our children will no longer see diversity as something separate but as something normal and every day in their lives. Look at it this way: Every child deserves the chance to see themselves as “normal.” Diversity simply means representing people as “normal” rather than the exception.
In many ways I am envious of my children. They will see things in their lives that I can only dream of seeing. My kids do not see the overt racism of the past. Yet my kids will have to continue the fight for justice and equality for all people. It is my hope that my wife and I will guide them to be comfortable with who they are as people, to feel accepted for the wonderful children they are, and to accept others as they are without reservation or judgement. If we accomplish that, the future will be bright for them.
I would to thank my friends at Multicultural Children’s Book Day for sending me an assortment of diverse books to add to my collection. Please follow them on Twitter @MCChildsBookDay and visit them at www.multiculturalchildrensbookday.com. Their work continues to support children across the world whose stories need to be told. Thank you again for the books and for the work you do for children!