Bring Diverse Books Into Your Classroom

By Ali Berman

From elementary school through graduate school, I read a lot of great books. Books that inspired me and taught me to think about literature and life. Books that shaped my world. And yet, it wasn’t until I reached my twenties that I started to realize that, even though I had considered myself to be well-read, I had actually only been given access to a tiny percentage of the human experience. During one particular class in graduate school, when I looked down at my syllabus, I saw all male names, except for one, a lone woman. And with a little more research, I found that, of all the authors I would read that semester, only one was a person of color.

Immediately I started thinking back, reflecting on the books I had been assigned in middle school, high school and college. With the exception of classes like Native American Literature or Pacific Rim Literature where I had opted to look at writing from specific voices, the same held true. I had gone through my entire educational experience reading predominantly white male American voices. And the characters they wrote about largely fit the same demographic. Even in the Native American and Pacific Rim Literature courses, the authors had almost all been male.

Cut to years later, after I had tailored my own personal reading to fill in the gaps in my education, I learned about a new movement that was taking shape called We Need Diverse Books, a movement I believe is absolutely necessary for the creation of a more humane world.

We Need Diverse Books, “is a grassroots organization created to address the lack of diverse, non-majority narratives in children’s literature. We Need Diverse Books is committed to the ideal that embracing diversity will lead to acceptance, empathy, and ultimately equality.”

The organization is working to amplify diversification efforts by promoting the inclusion of the experiences of LGBTQ communities, people of color, people with disabilities, gender diversity and ethnic, cultural and religious minorities.

Here at HEART we know firsthand just how important it is for children to learn about the experiences of all different kinds of people to help the kids grow up to be more empathetic adults. It’s easy to see the world through our own eyes, but sometimes it can be harder to relate to experiences we’ve never had. By exposing our kids to the inner lives of others through books, we can fight stereotypes and show them that the world is a big place filled with all sorts of people.

Like We Need Diverse Books, we want to encourage classroom teachers to review the books they assign to their students, and, if that list seems lacking, to seek out more diverse authors and characters.

Here are just a few ideas on how to start the process:

  1. Check out HEART’s list of humane diverse books to find new books to add to your curriculum.
  2. If your students are a bit older, talk to them about the issue, discuss why having diverse books matters, and ask them to take part in the process of adding more diverse books to the curriculum. They could bring in their favorite book from home, or head to the library to find new books. As another perk, your students will feel like active participants in their own education which will make them more engaged.
  3. Have students check out the annual VIDA Count. The organization looks at thirty-nine of the most well-respected literary journals and periodicals and breaks down the numbers to see how many women and men they published in a year. As VIDA has shown, there is a huge disparity, with men taking up the vast majority of ink. For example, in 2013 the New York Times reviewed 307 male authors, and just 80 female authors. Bonus points if the kids do a count for their own school by gathering the syllabi from teachers and seeing how many of the books assigned would qualify as diverse. The number they end up with might just help other teachers get on board with diversifying their own curriculums.

What are some of your favorite diverse books?

Photo Credit: Flickr/Salem (MA) Public Library

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