You may have heard some discussions about culture and inclusivity at Soundview in the past year. Similar discussions are happening in parts of the kidlit community (including librarians, teachers, authors, illustrators, and others involved in children’s literature). I realized the work of these communities should also be reflected in the Soundview library. The library nurtures students’ reading lives, which are part of the journey to become knowledgeable, compassionate, and ethical citizens and leaders. Data supports this idea; reading literary fiction improves an individual’s ability to empathize.
In the article “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors”, Professor Rudine Sims Bishop writes about different roles books can fulfill for a reader, including
mirrors, which reflect the reader’s own experiences
windows, which let the reader see the world beyond their own experiences
sliding glass doors, which let readers step through into different perspectives.
Our library should provide all these types of reading experiences. Diversity in our collections will not happen automatically, though. The publishing industry--including gatekeepers who choose books for publishing, decide how to market them, and write mainstream reviews--is overwhelmingly white, cisgender, heterosexual, and non-disabled. Their gatekeeping involves subjective decisions, often based on whether characters and experiences feel authentic to them personally. For this reason, I try to look at a wide variety of sources to find and evaluate books.
At first, I just thought of library inclusivity as something to keep in mind while selecting new books and recommending books to library patrons. When students choose pleasure reading, they may naturally be drawn to books that reflect their experiences. Other students may not find themselves reflected in books at all, and may not read for pleasure for that reason. Making sure the new books we purchase for and display in the library are diverse can get readers over these hurdles. This is only part of the library inclusivity picture, though.
A post by Debbie Reese called “Where do you shelve Native American stories?” showed me that I needed to revisit the placement of books. Often, culturally important stories written by Native people are placed in the mythology section of a library. We have moved some of these to the Religion section because they are part of people’s active religious traditions. We also had some so-called Native legends which were actually amalgamated stories written by outsiders, not reflecting a group’s traditions. I have shelved these in Fiction. I will continue to examine mythology and religious books to ensure that their placement reflects their true role in their cultures.
I am also learning to look at the nature of representation in books. A few examples of representation red flags:
An author writes one group (like men or white characters) as complex humans, but everyone else is a one-dimensional prop.
A disabled character has magical or superhuman powers which conveniently cancel out the disability so the author won’t have to explore real-life challenges.
A character is called “Native American” but never identifies with a specific Native nation.
An author who writes about a culture as an outsider does not provide clear, specific attributions to show they received willing help from members of that culture.
These alone will not lead us to reject a book from the library, but they are significant. They tell us something about the writing quality, and inform our decisions when we acquire and recommend books. We also need to recognize that representation reflects reality but not every reality. For example, we have two novels about trans girls in the library, and they are both very similar stories of transitioning; this tells us we need more stories of trans people who are already out, or have different experiences with the transition. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk on the danger of a single story explains this need. Paying attention to representation helps us recognize diversity gaps when we’re deciding what books to buy.
Some reviewers for Kirkus evaluate representation in reviews, and blogs like We Need Diverse Books and YA Interrobang also do this work. To read reviews which focus on specific types of representation, I visit blogs about different facets of children’s and YA literature like race, disability, and sexual orientation. I will include a list at the end of this post. Take a look at these blogs and you’ll find some very interesting books you’ve never heard of before! Their impact on my own reading life is significant.