Monday, February 26, 2007

On Diversity in School and Classroom Libraries

In late 1960, my parents began adoption proceedings in the hope of adding to their family. It took much longer than normal, owing to my dad changing jobs a few times and a steady stream of social workers, but I joined the family shortly after my birth in August of 1965. I have always known that I was adopted, and never really gave it much thought until I entered elementary school. However, I learned quickly that I was different. If there were other students who were adopted, they either didn't know it, or didn't share it. I was never uncomfortable or uneasy about being adopted, but often wondered if there were others like me. While my classmates came from "traditional" families, I just couldn't find any other kids in my situation. Add to this the fact that there were few adopted children in the books I read (sure there were lots of orphans, but none that I can recall as adopted), and I slowly began to feel out of place.

Times have changed and today, there are many terrific books about adoption. So why do I relate this story? My goal is simply this, to continue to push librarians and teachers to diversify their collections so that every child can see himself or herself reflected in the books they read. I finished reading The Year of the Dog this weekend, a book in which the author, Grace Lin, admits to writing it (and many of her picture books) so that children of Chinese-American (or Taiwanese-American) descent can "see" themselves in what they read. Here is a quote from her press release for The Year of the Dog.
“I’m cleaning up the house,” my mother said during one of her phone calls, “Can I get rid of your old Cheerleaders book?”

My Cheerleaders books. I had loved those books, treasured them. They were dog-eared and had been reread hundreds of times.

But they were also really terrible books. Poor cousins of Sweet Valley High, they were full of insipid romances, ridiculous dramas and irritating plots. Even as a young reader I had loathed the superficial stories, embarrassed if anyone caught me reading them. But these books had one redeeming quality that outweighed all other flaws. One of the Cheerleaders was Chinese.

I was never a cheerleader and I never had any longing or desire to be one, either. However, I did have an insatiable yearning to read a book with a person like me in it.

Can you blame her? Much like my desire to read about a child, any child, who was adopted, Grace wanted to read books where Chinese-Americans were not secondary characters.

The same can be said for children from all walks of life. I wrote a post a while ago about why multicultural books matter, but now I find the term multicultural too limiting. I think we should all aim for collections that show the range of diversity that exists in this wonderful country, and that extends well beyond race and ethnicity to include age, gender, religion, abilities (or disabilities) and sexual orientation. Ah, there's the rub.

In early February, Darren at Right on the Left Coast: Views From a Conservative Teacher posted an entry entitled Addressing Homosexuality with Elementary Students. Here is an excerpt.
I'm all about tolerance. Tolerance doesn't mean acceptance; to me, tolerance is a live and let live philosophy. Homosexuality is still a touchy enough topic in our culture that I don't think it presents an undue burden on schools to postpone talking about it until students are older and better able to understand the difficulties involved. I don't know where the age line should be, but I'm convinced that kindergarteners and 2nd graders are well on the wrong side of that age line. I recall having some rudimentary "sex ed" in 6th grade; would that be a more appropriate age to talk about (searching around for an inoffensive term here) non-standard families?
What concerns me about these arguments is the lack of consideration for children who come from families that are different. Why should merely including a book on families with same sex parents in a library collection be viewed as tantamount to "teaching" homosexuality? I just don't buy it. Acknowledging that children today come from a variety of home structures is important in helping children to understand and value their differences and each other. We now have books about adoption, divorce, single-parent families and the like, so why not books about same-sex families?

For a range of responses to this topic, read the comments section of the post linked above. I too welcome your thoughts on this matter. I know we won't all agree, so all I ask is that we keep the comments polite. Passion and conviction, however, are encouraged.


  1. Tricia,

    You always have such great posts. I agree with you about diversity.

    In 1995, I attended a session on muliticultural poetry led by Paul B. Janeczko during a three-day children's literature conference at the University of Southern Maine. Paul expanded the boundaries of the term "multicultural" for those of us who participated in his session. He read samples of poems from different "cultures"--including the culture of the elderly and grandparents, the culture of Appalachia--and asked us to respond in writing. Then we read what we wrote and had some excellent discussions. This experience certainly helped to broaden the way I perceived the term "multicultural."

    I am a child of an immigrant family. My father and all of my grandparents were born in Poland. I was one member of a small ethnic minority in the city where I grew up. I had to tolerate a good amount of teasing and a plethora of "dumb Polock" jokes in the course of growing up.

    I would have loved to read books, watch television programs, and see movies where Polish people were portrayed in a positive way--and not stereotyped as the "dumb" guys in shows like Barney Miller and Taxi.

    I believe it's important for all children to feel as if they "fit" into their society--that they belong just as much as the girl and boy from middle-class-two-parent-heterosexual families who have "American" sounding surnames and "typically American" facial features.

    Should teachers/librarians/schools have certain kinds of books available to recommend to particular children and their families? Certainly! Should the books be read aloud? I think it depends on the book, the children, the situation.

    I do have a concern about teachers/schools who have an agenda--whether it be liberal or conservative--that they want to foist on children. The first thing I think we need to teach our youth is that people from all walks of life, of all races and religions, from all kinds of families deserve to be treated with respect. And the best way to teach that is through the example we adults set for them.

  2. Hi Elaine,
    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I too worry about the political agenda that can be attached to the inclusion of such materials. While I'm not advocating that these are the books we read aloud, I do believe they should be available for the children who come from non-traditional families.

    I belonged to a babysitting coop when we lived in the city, and we had at least two same-sex families with school age children. The children did have some issues dealing with other kids at school because their families were different. The only way I know of to combat this bullying is to help children think about the special bond families share, regardless of their structure.

    I know there are no easy answers to these questions, but these kids are in our schools and are increasing in numbers. We need to help them in the same way we help other children who, for whatever reason, feel they are different.

    Thanks for making me think more about this.

  3. This is a great post. I have to admit to having a hard time getting through the comments on Darren's post, never mind responding in an intelligent and reasoned way. Whenever I read or hear that alternative families are deemed too sexual or inappropriate to discuss in elementary school, I hear someone saying that my 6-year-old daughter is inappropriate: her existence, her family, her right to have these basic (and, in her experience, non-sexual) facts of her life acknowledged among her peers. I understand that it's not meant personally, and if I'm going to dive into the controversy in a helpful way I have to get past the rush of feelings provoked by the idea that there are people who want their families protected, not just from me, but from my kid. But I guess I'm just not there yet.

    Anyway, thank you for the post. "Diversity" is becoming something of a cliched buzzword, but really it's about something as simple as respect for all people.

  4. Hi Els,
    Thanks so much for stopping by. I'll admit that the word diversity is so overused these days that I hesitate to use it, but I just don't know how else to say this. We must value the experiences of all children and the world that they live in, and families with two moms or two dads are very real, and no less worthy of recognition than other families.
    I love your new blog. I'll be sure to stop by.

  5. This is a great post. I forgot or didn't know you were adopted. Interesting how you are right - there are so many orphans in kidlit but few kids adopted and that's not the main plot.

    I actually don't like the terms "multicultural" or "diversity" because they seem to become catch phrases used mostly by white people when they/we mean not-white (other than normal everyday folks like us) people are in the book... KWIM? I can't think of better terms though. I like to blog about those books most of the time.

  6. I appreciate how you can disagree without name-calling.