Role Models

by Megan Schliesman

Shannon Hale recently commented on a school visit experience she had in which boys were not invited to the event. She rightly decries sexism in our thinking about youth literature and in our role as gatekeepers.

Hale is commenting specifically about the assumption that boys don’t want to read books with girls as main characters: what I think of as the “genderizing” of literature.

But the issue she describes is not unlike adults—from parents to professionals in the fields of libraries and education—who assume white kids don’t want to read about kids of color. Who assume that readers are only interested in characters who look or talk or behave like them.

Wait. No one does that, right?

Of course we buy multicultural books.

But then, they don’t always circulate that well. Or we can’t get enough kids to take an interest in reading them.

And so we don’t buy as many the next time, because our community is diverse, but it isn’t that diverse.

Here’s the thing: If children and teens aren’t picking up books about characters who don’t look like them, it’s on us, the adults in their lives.

It’s on us.

Because chances are we’re sending the message, whether overtly or subtly, that we don’t think they’ll want to read about characters who don’t look like them.

Sure, we’re buying some multicultural books with the best intentions. We’re putting them on the shelf. We’re including them in displays—about Black History Month or Hispanic Heritage Month, or a “Celebrate Diversity” event.

book coversBut are we including them in everything else? All the time? Are they part of our thematic storytimes about summer or friendship or transportation or counting or food? Are they included in titles for book discussions groups and reading clubs? Are they among what we pull off the shelf and share as part of reader’s advisory, regardless of what the child or teen we’re working with looks like?

Multicultural literature and the broader spectrum of diversity is not about the “other.” It’s about us. All of us. Yes, it’s important for children and teens of color to see themselves in literature. Essential. But it’s just as essential that we not segregate our thinking, or the books we offer kids, unless we want to send the message that books about characters who don’t look like them somehow matter less.

(Yes, extrapolate from there.)

It’s the responsibility of those of us who are gatekeepers—librarians, teachers, and others—to make sure children not only have access to multicultural literature and books reflecting other dimensions of diversity, but that they see us enthusiastically and authentically engaging with diverse books in everything we do.

book coversbook coversWe are facilitators of access, and that’s critical. But we are role models, too. We need to look closely at our own behaviors and assumptions regarding kids and books and reading when it comes to diversity and gender and all other aspects of identity.

This comes more easily to some of us than others. But that is all the more reason to be intentional and mindful in the choices we make as librarians and teachers. We are learning, too.