Reading For Diversity Is Easier Than I Thought

In early July I joined  Diversity Your Reading Challenge. At that time I told you about my teaching experience in the 1960s. I taught fifth grade in an inner city school where the main educational problem was low reading abilities. As a life-long reader, I hurt for my students. I knew how much they were missing.

I did everything within my power to help them improve their reading skills, but there was one thing I was unable to do. I could not put in their hands books that reflected their culture. Sure, we had lots of good story books, and some good biographies. But, they were about people living in the suburbs or small towns, or on farms. Plus, all the people in those books were white. My students lived in a big city and the only white face around was mine.

My fifth graders and I wrote our own stories and drew our own illustrations. It helped but imagine how much better it would have been to go to the library and see shelf after shelf of books with minority faces and experiences.

When I join the Diversify Your Reading Challenge I decided to pretend I was back at Douglass Elementary School. But, instead of the 1960s, I would pretend I was preparing with today’s book offerings. What would I find?

I knew that Coretta Scott King had instituted children’s book awards with the purpose of honoring African American authors and illustrators that “promote understanding and appreciation of the culture of all peoples”. I decided to start there and see what I could find for fifth graders.

I was amazed at what I found. There have been awards given out since 1970 so there’s an excellent list. I found a website, Teaching Books.net that gave me the ability to look at all the winners. But it also let me narrow the list down so I could find the books  appropriate for students in grades 4 through 8. I found 113 books. Wow – what a difference between the sixties and today! Keep in mind that’s 113 award winners. There are lots of other good books out there.

I’ve been working my way through some of those winners the last two months. I looked at the books on the award’s list and compared them to the books available in my local library. It was a good match.

The first one I got excited about is one I told you about a couple of weeks ago. This is the 2011 award winner, One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia. How much I loved the three little girls in that story set in big city Berkley. I could have teased my students into reading this book by asking them to find out why the girls had to eat on the floor or how did the girls take a bus trip through San Francisco without anyone knowing about it.

I found a book I know some of my boy students would have loved. It is the 2010 award winner, Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshall by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, Illustrated by R.Gregory Christie. This is the true story of one of the first black deputy U. S. marshals west of the Mississippi. He was amazingly effective in capturing over 3000 outlaws. Although he was expert with a gun, he often tricked the outlaws into getting caught. I could have teased those boys into finding out about what kind of guns Reeves used, or how many bad guys did he kill.

I had a good time exploring children’s books featuring minority characters and events. In addition to the Coretta Scott King Award winners, I also read an Asian Pacific Prize winner, Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus. And then I read Five Flavors of Dumb by Anthony John, about a deaf girl who manages a rock band. One more group of books I want to explore are children’s books for Hispanics, or Latinos.

I wish I would have had these wonderful resources forty years ago. There may be all sorts of educational theories to the contrary, but I believe, with today’s resources, my students would have enthusiastically improved their reading skills. As I mentioned in my previous post for this challenge, when children see good characters in books that look like them, they see the enormous possibilities for their own lives. When minority children only see books with white children in them that don’t believe reading is for them.

Are we where we need to be in terms of books suited to all readers? No. We’ve come a long way since the sixties but there are many more books for and by minorities that need to be published. Join with me in reading and pushing for diversity in all the books we read.

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5 Responses to Reading For Diversity Is Easier Than I Thought

  1. You sound like a wonderful, thoughtful, caring teacher. I’d love to check out the books you mentioned. Thanks for sharing your discoveries.

  2. It’s good to see that publishing is making some progress! Another book you should check out is The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.

  3. I agree with Kathy about the Alexie book – totally wonderful! And so glad you haven’t had much trouble finding these books. I don’t have the same fortune in Tucson!

  4. Staci says:

    I loved The Bad News for Outlaws- it was great and had wonderful drawings. I have the other book also on my middle school shelves but I need to get to it!! True Diary is a great book and one that I use frequently with my older boys who think they hate to read…until they get this one in their hands!!

  5. kaye says:

    I enjoyed learning a little bit more about you. –a fifth grade teacher, my hat’s off to you. I’ve enjoyed your reviews of award winners on Quirky girls read. There are so many good books to read it’s hard to decide which ones to read. I think you’ve done a really nice job of it.

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