Anti-racist book lists: a place to start

No one would argue that 2020 has been a pretty rough year so far. We’re facing the effects of climate change and the very real and immediate specter of worse to come; we’ve got a global pandemic; and here in the U.S., we have a president who refuses to lead a coherent, science-based, national response to either the COVID-19 pandemic or the epidemic of racism our country is also battling.

I’ve done a lot of reading about all of these things, but less writing about them. I compiled most of the anti-racism resources below in early June, but at the time, the internet was flooded with similar resources; did I need to create a selected bibliography of them? (I didn’t, really, but my instinct is always to take notes, document, and share, so if they are useful to you, fantastic.)

On June 15, the New England Library Association (NELA) published a statement that reads, in part, “Let us all stand together, build coalitions, and be each other’s accomplices in the struggle to end internal, interpersonal, and systematic forms of racism and all other forms of oppression….Racism, in all its forms, destroys our communities. We must all proactively work on eradicating racism anywhere and everywhere it exists” (emphasis added).

I have been thinking – as a white parent and librarian – about how to do that, and what advice I can share about how to be anti-racist and how to raise anti-racist kids. I’ve boiled it down to a few points, for now:

  1. White parents, caregivers, teachers, and librarians need to normalize talking about race. Though some of us were taught to be “colorblind” in the ’90s, what we really need to be is “color conscious.” If talking about race is taboo, that makes it seem uncomfortable, and shameful, and then we arrive at the point where even mentioning race is considered racist. But if we refuse to recognize the racism around us, and can’t talk about it, we can’t work to dismantle it. (Note that even the option to talk about race or not is part of white privilege.)
  2. Books provide an entry point to discuss many topics. If you’re involved in selecting books for kids (if you’re a parent, caregiver, teacher, librarian), make the effort to choose books that show all kinds of people. Don’t let white be the default. Don’t let animals be the default (as much as we may love hedgehogs and bears). Most of us live in communities that are effectively segregated; if kids don’t see diversity around them, at least they can see it in picture books.
  3. If you’re seeking books that show Black characters, make sure you are not just getting biographies of civil rights heroes or stories of enslavement. Select books that show Black joy as well. There is a wealth of contemporary Black stories – enough for every month of the year, not just Black History Month. Seek out and read #ownvoices books.
  4. Definitions are important. Racism is structural, historical, and present-tense. We live in a racist society; it’s “the water we swim in.” As the song from Avenue Q goes, “Everyone’s a little bit racist sometimes,” even if our intentions are good. But white intentions don’t matter as much as white actions. So…
  5. Listen. Speak with care. Have humility. We will make mistakes; don’t let fear of making mistakes keep us from doing the work. Apologize, repair, listen some more.

A selected bibliography of anti-racism resources, June 2020

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“Discussing Race with Young Kids,” Rachel G. Payne and Jessica Ralli, School Library Journal, September 24, 2018. https://www.slj.com/?detailStory=discussing-race-with-young-kids-first-steps

“What White Children Need to Know About Race,” National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), https://www.nais.org/magazine/independent-school/summer-2014/what-white-children-need-to-know-about-race/

“Talking to Kids About Race,” Lindsey Krabbenhoft, Jbrary, July 21, 2016. https://jbrary.com/talking-to-kids-about-race/

“A Nonfiction Anti-Racist Reading List,” Publishers Weekly, June 3, 2020. https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/tip-sheet/article/83485-an-anti-racist-reading-list.html

“Antiracist Books for Kids,” Kirkus https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-lists/antiracist-books-kids/#a-good-kind-of-trouble

“10 Antiracist Books for Teens,” Kirkus https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-lists/10-antiracist-books-young-adults/

“10 Books That Challenge Racism,” Kirkus https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-lists/10-books-challenge-racism/

“Antiracist Resources and Reads: Lists for All Ages,” Elizabeth (Betsy) Bird, School Library Journal, June 2, 2020. http://blogs.slj.com/afuse8production/2020/06/02/antiracist-resources-and-reads-lists-for-all-ages/

“Because Black Lives Matter, A Collection of Antiracist Reading Lists,” Karen Jensen, School Library Journal, June 1, 2020. http://www.teenlibrariantoolbox.com/2020/06/because-black-lives-matter-a-collection-of-anti-racist-reading-lists/

“Our Modern Minstrelsy,” Kekla Magoon, The Horn Book, June 3, 2020 https://www.hbook.com/?detailStory=our-modern-minstrelsy

“Young Dreamers,” Christopher Myers, The Horn Book, August 6, 2013 https://www.hbook.com/?detailStory=young-dreamers

Reading While White http://readingwhilewhite.blogspot.com

We Are Kid Lit Collective https://wtpsite.wordpress.com

The Brown Bookshelf https://thebrownbookshelf.com

We Need Diverse Books

The most recent issue of Kirkus is a “diversity issue,” with about 40 pages of articles and essays that give different perspectives on diversity in literature. I’m still making my way through it, but I loved this quote from author Padma Venkatraman:

“Books are more than mere mirrors or windows; they are keys to compassion. And novels don’t just expose readers to differences, they allow readers to experience diversity. They allow us to live within another’s skin, think another’s thoughts, feel the depths of another’s soul. Novels transport, transform, and, most importantly, allow us to transcend prejudice. When we immerse ourselves in characters whose religions are different than our own, our empathy is enhanced. We move closer to embracing people of all religions.”

It reminded me a bit of the way Neil Gaiman talks about fiction (“Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been”), and what Caitlin Moran wrote in her essay “Alma Mater” about growing up in the library:

“The shelves were supposed to be loaded with books – but they were, of course, really doors….A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life raft and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination….They are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen instead.”

When Venkatraman writes about mirrors and windows, she is referencing Rudine Sims Bishop’s 1990 article “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors.” Books that are mirrors reflect the reader’s self and own world back at them; books that are windows show the reader another person or people and world; books that are sliding glass doors allow the reader to “enter” another world.

The San Antonio Public Library page “Diversity in the Classroom: Building Your (Early Childhood) Library with Mirrors and Windows” has a video clip of Bishop from January 2015. In it, Bishop says, “Children need to see themselves reflected, but books can also be windows, so you can look through and see other worlds, and see how they match up or don’t match up to [your] own. But the sliding glass door allows you to enter that world as well, so that’s the reason diversity needs to go both ways.” She says that just as children of color need to see themselves in books, white children – who see plenty of themselves in books – need to see characters of other cultures, races, and religions as well, to provide a more accurate picture of the world as it is (“colorful”).

The #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement FAQ page cites an infographic produced by multicultural publisher Lee & Low Books (“About everyone. For everyone”), which used statistics from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center and census data. Although 37% of the U.S. population are people of color, only 10% of published children’s books contain multicultural content. Note that that includes books where the main character might not be a person of color, and it also doesn’t mean that the author was a person of color.

We Need Diverse Books virtual buttonWhere do we go from here? We need more diversity at all levels of publishing, in libraries, in schools, in the bookselling business. We need to write, publish, read, and promote diverse books; “multicultural books don’t sell” is no longer a valid argument, if it ever was. We need more stories about more different people and places. We’re getting there, but too slowly.

8/17/17 Edited to add:

As I made my way through the rest of the issue, I found two more quotes I wanted to share. The first is from Megan Dowd Lambert, an author, senior lecturer in children’s literature at Simmons, and Kirkus reviewer; she in turn is quoting Mary Robinette Kowel:

“It’s not about adding diversity for the sake of diversity, it’s about subtracting homogeneity for the sake of realism.”

Though our society is far more segregated than it ought to be, and some kids may rarely see people outside of their own race, culture, or class, the world is “colorful” and literature ought to reflect that. In fact, books are where many people encounter new ideas and perspectives and learn about the world. “Armchair traveling” isn’t just for seeing the lives of ancient royalty, dangerous mountain-climbing expeditions, or sea voyages; it may be a way to see into the next neighborhood.

“…Disability comes from scarcity and environment and other people’s prejudices as much as the body. Silencing the word can silence real injustices, emotions, and experiences. Diverse books are tools for empathy, but we can’t address what we won’t say.”

This is from Amy Robinson, children’s librarian and Kirkus reviewer. She makes an important point about environment contributing to disability. Are our built environments inclusive, or do they present barriers? (Do elevators work? Are aisles wide enough? Are there ramps or only stairs? Is signage large and clear? Are there curb cuts on sidewalks? Are sidewalks even or broken, covered in snow or cleared?) In many cases, a disability may only present extra difficulty because of obstacles in the world – in the built environment or as part of prevailing cultural and societal ideas. Let’s figure out what those obstacles are (it’s often very hard to imagine, so ask people who confront them) and start removing them.