My favorite books when I was a preteen included the Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley High series, as well as “Where the Red Fern Grows.” I still cry every time I think about Old Dan and Little Ann. But now, as a part-time language arts instructor, I don’t teach most of the books I read as a child because the representations of black people and other people of color are either lackluster or nonexistent. Looking back, I realize that even my beloved Baby-Sitters Club always unnecessarily singled out Jessi as “the black one. ”
Like me, you might cherish the books you read as a kid and want to share them with your children. But how many of these books showed black people or other people of color in plots that didn’t involve oppression? How many books did you read about little black girls becoming entrepreneurs, like Sarah Rector? How many books depicted little black boys hunting with their dogs, like little Billy in “Where The Red Fern Grows”?
I didn’t read many — if any — books that showcased a broad range of black voices, and that’s a problem. We may not have realized it then, but the literary canon we studied and love is pretty monocultural. The popular books published 20 or more years ago were largely monocultural as well.
That’s not our fault, but we can make up for it now by exposing our kids to literature we never read to ensure they are cross-cultural readers and socially conscious citizens. Black History Month is a perfect time to start, and here are three ways to do it.
Don’t rely on the school to provide a multicultural education.
Many educators still teach the traditional classics — the “must read” books that have been revered for decades or centuries — without ever challenging them or adding to them.
In 2016, for example, Yale undergraduate students petitioned the university’s English department to change its major requirements, arguing that they lacked diversity and excluded the voices and perspectives of writers of color. This reveals how a leading U.S. university that is committed to inclusivity can still possess glaring blind spots. The students were simply asking for what should have always existed.
Instead of waiting for schools to do this, parents can diversify their children’s book shelves. They can insert Renée Watson’s “Piecing Me Together” alongside Lewis Carroll’s “Alice Adventures in Wonderland;” they can recommend reading Kwame Alexander’s “The Crossover” right after J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan.”
It’s not hard, but it does take intention, thought and time. When choosing books, parents should consider not just if there are characters of color, but their role in the story and the book’s theme: Is she the protagonist? Is she strong, brave and resilient? Is race a central theme, something that’s mentioned occasionally, or something never mentioned at all? All three types of stories are necessary; you want to make sure your reading selections are balanced.
Also, you can look beyond fiction and diversify the types of multicultural literature you give your children. Have you read the poetry of Countee Cullen to your preteens? Have you watched them struggle to decipher the ones he penned as a teen? Poetry can easily be read aloud and discussed over a family meal.
Create a book list for them that they can use during summer vacation, or all year. If you curate this list well, then after a few years, your children (and you) will be able to effortlessly name dozens of black authors just like you can white authors. (This also goes for indigenous and Latino writers, and others.) If you don’t know where to start, search Scholastic’s website for great “multicultural” reads. Or try a general Internet search. If you’re willing to research your kids’ schools, summer camps, toys and vacation spots, then why not take the time to research the stories that will shape how they see themselves, others and the world?
Model multicultural reading and global citizenship.
Children will be more inclined to read a diverse array of books if they see you doing it. When they grow up, they will do the same because kids tend to mirror their parents’ behavior, consciously or subconsciously.
Go beyond the usual favorites, such as Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou. There are a slew of contemporary black writers whose work crosses genres and topics. Angela Flournoy’s debut novel, “The Turner House,” was shortlisted for the National Book Award for Fiction. Another book I love is Ijeoma Oluo’s “So You Want to Talk About Race,” a practical manual that outlines how to discuss tricky racial topics. Glory Edim’s recent anthology, “The Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves,” is another great read; it showcases the work of black female writers while also providing book recommendations.
Also consider taking the kids to book readings and author talks. Taking your (mature) teenager to hear Angie Thomas talk about “The Hate U Give” will give you an opportunity to discuss race, public perception and police shootings — all timely and relevant topics.
Advocate for diverse literature at your child’s school.
If your child’s school provides a reading list that lacks meaningful diversity — meaning it is limited to mostly white characters or the inclusion of characters of color whose presence is either marginal or one-dimensional — ask the teacher about it. Some teachers have more say about which books their students read. If your child’s teacher’s can alter the class syllabus, then approach her not just with the idea to diversify, but with a list of potential books that she could use in class. “Jaylen and the High Five Machine” and “Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut,” for example, are both excellent books for elementary students.
If the teacher doesn’t get to choose which books she teaches, then talk to the person who does, whether that’s the department chair, principal or a school district representative. Become that parent — the one every administrator knows because you’re so insistent on making change happen.
Use this as an opportunity to change the system. Seize the chance not just to diversify your children’s reading selections, but to diversify the canon of your child’s school studies.
Chanté Griffin is a writer and entertainer based in Los Angeles. Find her on Twitter @yougochante.
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