In Spring 2020, our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee began the process of instituting a school-wide initiative surveying our own collection of children’s books with an inclusionary lens.
WHY DOES DIVERSITY IN CHILDREN’S BOOKS MATTER?
The Cooperative Children’s Book Center, part of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, creates an annual report of newly published children’s books and their representation of diverse authors and main characters. Below are the statistics of diverse main characters from their 2019 audit:
- White: 41.8%
- Black/African: 12%
- First/Native Nations: 1%
- Asian/Asian Americans: 8.7%
- Latinx: 5.3%
- Pacific Islander: 0.05%
- Animal/Other: 29.9%
- LGBTQIAP+: 3.1%
- Disability: 3.4%
Data on books by and about Black, Indigenous and People of Color published for children and teens compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The importance of these percentages goes beyond mere numbers. These statistics suggest that there is a significant lack of characters in literature that reflect the children reading it, and that is crucial for the developing young reader and for our world as a whole. Picture books serve the purpose of both mirrors and windows for children, reflecting back a child’s own understanding of the world and their place in it while also providing the opportunity to see outside of themselves.
HOW DO WE MAKE SURE OUR LIBRARY REPRESENTS DIVERSE AND INCLUSIVE REALITIES?
The statistics presented by the CCBC made us wonder about our own school and classroom libraries. Where were the gaps in our collection? Did the books on our shelves reflect the diverse families that make up our community at PSA and the wide world beyond our doors? In hopes of answering these questions, we worked to develop a rubric that would help us examine our books through several different lenses:
- Racial diversity
- Historical accuracy
- Diversity of cultural, religious, and spiritual beliefs
- Diversity in age and appearance
- Diversity of ability
- Gender diversity
- Power dynamics
- Diversity in sexual orientation
- Family diversity
- Socioeconomic diversity
After review, the book is given a rating:
Gold Sticker – This book does a great job of representing some aspect of diversity in our world and/or reflects the lives of the children and families in our care in a respectful and accurate way.
Green – This book has many great elements and does not necessarily need any discussion.
Yellow – There are good elements to this book, but some discussion during reading would be recommended.
Red – This book has many problematic elements and would need much discussion if presented to children.
HERE’S WHERE WE ARE NOW:
As of May 2022, we have surveyed 300 books (and counting!) While some of the results were expected, we were surprised to find that 47% of our books did not feature any human characters. Of the 160 books that feature human characters, 102 feature little to no racial diversity.
Some of the largest gaps in representation in our library were in the categories of diversity in ability and family diversity. 96.3% of the books audited did not represent the diversity of disability in any way and 86.4% of books sampled did not show any alternative to normative ideas of what a family looks like.
Of the 300 books audited, the color rating breakdown was 191 green, 81 yellow, and 19 red books. Only 6 books received a gold sticker rating.
WHAT DO WE DO WITH THE PROBLEMATIC BOOKS?
We do not expect all books to address all issues, nor is the task about censorship or cancellation; it is simply about making sure that the books our children access are respectful and reflective of the children who read them. We want our children to be exposed to our world and its people in all of their diversity, beauty, complexity, and joy without the burden of stereotypes, racist context, homophobic ideals, cultural exploitation, ableism, or anything else that would discredit the equity and respect all people deserve.
With that being said, we also recognize that these things exist in children’s literature and that they are problems many of our children and families face in their daily lives.
Mickey Willis, a PSA pedagogista (curriculum director) offered this reflection: “To simply take the red-rated books away, to hide the problematic parts, is robbing children of their capabilities for understanding complex issues and looking at books with a critical lens. These complex issues and hard conversations can lead to a more empathetic, compassionate and curious child.”
ISN’T THIS ALL JUST A LITTLE SUBJECTIVE?
Yes! And that’s kind of the point…
When the book audit was presented at our monthly small group staff meetings which take place over the course of three days, staff were invited to discuss a yellow-rated book that had already been audited by a DEI committee member. On the first day, nearly instant conversations arose about gender stereotypes, something the auditor had already noted were present in the book. The next day, the conversation wasn’t so immediate. A staff member reflected, “I felt like it was only because I was looking for something that I noticed the pronouns used followed typical gender stereotypes.” On the third and final day, staff members did not notice anything apparently problematic with the book and, in fact, found several areas where the book did well in regards to diverse representation.
So, yes, the audit is subjective, but it also highlights something very important: we are all at different points on our journey toward recognizing our biases and privilege. By going through the book auditing process, we open ourselves up to learning and having conversations about our own implicit biases. If nothing else, it is our hope that the book audit can be an avenue for having important conversations with each other and to begin to do better together by thinking critically about the materials we are presenting to our children.
WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED AND WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
What have we learned? We can do better.
Of course, one of our main goals is to continue auditing books. But how do we use the information we have gathered?
- DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
One of the most important aspects of the audit has been the development of guided reading questions for each book as a resource for teachers when selecting and presenting books to children. Are there opportunities to use more inclusive language while reading? What kinds of developmentally appropriate conversations might we want to have with the children to give a more accurate and respectful picture of the people being represented?
2. ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS AUDIT
Children’s books are one part of the broader category of our environment and materials. What kinds of materials do we have and can we use to create safe spaces for children where they can see themselves reflected in their environment as well as gain an accurate understanding of others’ realities?
3. CREATING ROVING LIBRARIES
One of the biggest takeaways from this project was almost glaringly obvious: we need more diverse books. Thankfully, through the generosity and support of a PSA family and our Board of Directors, we have been able to do just that.
The books we are purchasing have been sourced and vetted from several booklist sources:
These rolling carts live in the central piazza of our school and are available for classroom checkout.
The book audit is one of the first steps PSA is making to do the important work of creating a truly inclusive environment. It is our goal that every family, child, and teacher in our school feels seen, heard, represented, respected, and loved, and that requires taking a hard look at our practices, our teaching methods, and our school culture.