By MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN
Children’s Defense Fund
“When we think about what it is to be connected, we think about memory. We think about history. We think about storytelling. All of these words that we hear – ‘literacy,’ ‘inclusion,’ ‘diversity’ – those are all words for connection … When I say to people ‘why do we need to have diverse books?’ it’s not because necessarily everybody needs to see themselves reflected in every book, but because we need that sense of connection. We need to live in a global sense.”
– Christopher Myers
What kinds of books were on your childhood summer reading lists? As summer gets into full swing, students across the country will be reading an extraordinary selection of diverse books in the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools program. The CDF Freedom Schools reading curriculum has long been centered on excellent books reflecting a wide variety of cultures, races and experiences.
As award-winning children’s book author and illustrator Christopher Myers says, this matters in order to give all children a deeper sense of connection to the books they’re reading and to each other, and prepare them to live in a rapidly globalizing, multicultural, multiracial and multi-faith nation and world. For some children it’s the first time they’ve seen books with characters who look like them and share some of the struggles in their lives. Our goal is to help children fall in love with reading, and they respond.
As one scholar said, “I see myself and the books give me hope.”
It’s hard to be what you can’t see. Children of color need to be able to see themselves in the books they read. Just as importantly, all children need to be exposed to a wide range of books that reflect the true diversity of our nation and world as they really are. Several years ago Christopher Myers joined other leading children’s book authors in a roundtable at the annual National Training for college-aged servant leaders preparing to teach in CDF Freedom Schools summer programs. At that roundtable Tonya Bolden, who has written many powerful nonfiction books for young readers, said engaging history books – especially on her history – were largely absent when she was a child, “When it came to Black history, I remember there was Crispus Attucks and Phyllis Wheatley. And I think there was a part of me that said, okay, one was free, and he got shot; the other one was brilliant, but she was enslaved … What kind of options are those?”
Now she strives to make history come alive in ways that allow children to recognize their ties to people who came before them. Myers said books like Bolden’s are another example of the way being able to make connections between their lives and the books they read affects how children see themselves: “All of a sudden, you realize that the timeline of your life did not start when you were born. That timeline may have started 400 years ago on a ship, or before that. That is the kind of connection we’re talking about. And without … that understanding of that timeline, it is really hard to imagine ourselves in the future.”
Writer Janet Wong talked about another kind of connection when she read her poem “Noise” from the book Good Luck Gold. The poem’s protagonist is being teased by a group of children – “Ching chong Chinaman” – for her hair, nose, skin and the shape of her eyes:
It’s only noise […]
I won’t let it in.
I promise myself
I won’t let them
Wong explained that even when the context is completely different, a poem like this describes a common feeling of racism and discrimination that lets many children recognize this experience and see themselves. It also allows other children to make their own connections with how this child is feeling, including those who have never been teased about their heritage and those who have done the teasing.
All children need these kinds of experiences. Award-winning Mexican American writer Pat Mora is the founder of El día de los niños/El día de los libros (Children’s Day, Book Day), commonly known as Día, an annual celebration of creative literacy for children. She told the children’s book roundtable she invented a word to describe what she wants to see in all readers: “bookjoy.” Parents, grandparents, librarians, and educators must demand and support beautiful high-quality books that will allow all children to experience bookjoy as they see themselves and everything they have in common with others in a multiracial, multicultural, democratic society.
Marian Wright Edelman is founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund whose mission is “Leave No Child Behind.” For more information, visit https://www.childrensdefense.org.