Thoughts on Diversity in Classroom Libraries

For the past few years I’ve become increasingly aware of the lack of diversity in children’s literature. As a straight, white, middle class female who grew up with a mom, a dad, and one sibling (and is now in a family that is exactly the same), I had no trouble seeing myself in literature. I have trouble naming books that showed me people different from me during my childhood. Aside from boys. There were plenty of boys in books I read.

I teach a graduate class in elementary literacy. Tonight, instead of meeting on campus, we met in my classroom. The main goal for class tonight was to spend some time analyzing my classroom library.

We focused on race, gender roles for kids, gender roles for adults, and family structure. There are so many other things we could have examined, but time is finite. Quickly these graduate students noticed how rare it is to see a person of color in children’s literature, how traditional gender roles for both children and adults are pervasive, and how stereotypical family structures are overwhelmingly the norm. They were wise enough to note that this is true in a classroom library they know has had significant effort made to be diverse.

We had some great conversations. My goal was simply to raise their awareness of the lack of diversity in children’s literature and the need to have far more of it. These are students who want to be literacy specialists in schools. They will likely have some say in purchasing decisions when it comes to books for their buildings. I want this to be in their heads.

I shared with them two stories about Rick Riordan. The first was about the cover of the various titles in his Kane Chronicles series. One of the main characters is very clearly Black in the books. Very clearly. And yet, in many editions of the book in other countries, he was being portrayed as white on the covers. To my understanding, authors often have very little control over the art in their books. Riordan has fought and managed to get some covers changed. (The editions of the Kane Chronicles that I have in my classroom have the main characters somewhat in shadow or silhouette, making race hard to determine. That’s certainly one option for publishers. Not a good one, in my mind.)

The second Riordan story is about his new Gods of Asgard series (Norse gods). The title character, Magnus Chase, is rescued (for lack of a better word) by Samirah, a Muslim teenage girl. In the second book, a new character is introduced who is gender fluid. I don’t know that Riordan is doing this perfectly. I’m sure there are ways in which he is screwing up writing about people so different from him. But he appears to be making a darn good effort to get it right. And he’s using his level of fame to make things happen in middle grade novels that might otherwise get squelched.

My one regret about class tonight is that we didn’t talk about diversity in authors. I know if I tallied up the books in my classroom library a significant percentage would be written by white men. Just one more thing I’m working on as I continually expand my collection.

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