Becoming More Diverse – A Library Journey by Crystal Brunelle
“There are books with Hmong?” This question broke my heart a little. The boy was shocked when I had casually mentioned a book with a Hmong character. He had made it to third grade without realizing that there were books related to his home culture and that they were available in his school library. You should have seen his whole face light up when I led him to those books.
It was my first year as the library media specialist at Northern Hills and we had a handful of books with Hmong characters, but his question made me realize that those books weren’t visible enough. I began to display the books and booktalk them with classes and students and made sure that they were easy to find. I also started looking for more books to add to the collection. We have a significant Hmong population in our community and the few books we had were a start, but we needed more. My search led me to a wonderful store called Hmong ABC in St. Paul. They have an online store, but the next time I drove to the cities, I made a point to stop into the physical store and make some purchases too.
Through my search, I even found a book written by a local author. She was my very first author visit and we were hers. We learned about organizing author visits together and it was a great experience. Her book, Ka’s Garden, was in both Hmong and English. As I prepared students for her visit, I found that very few of them knew the term bilingual in reference to books or people. There were many teachable moments for my students and for me. It was fantastic to see eyes brighten as I made my attempt to pronounce Hmong words. The book provided a pronunciation guide, but it is a tonal language so I made plenty of mistakes. There were giggles and helpful corrections as several Hmong students voluntarily took the role of teacher – instructing me. I never put any of the students on the spot, but invariably at least one student would generally step in if I messed up. The other students soon discovered that there were actually bilingual people in our midst. I loved seeing these same students with brilliant smiles sitting tall during the author’s visit.
I began to purchase more bilingual books. Initially I only bought a few books because not that many of my students read languages beyond English even if they spoke another language. I hadn’t connected the dots yet. Soon though, a few of my students shared that someone was helping them read a book in Hmong or Spanish. This is definitely an excellent way to support home languages.
We now have a variety of bilingual books with languages including Korean, Urdu, Spanish, Chinese, Ojibwe, and many others in addition to Hmong. We may or may not have students or families who speak all of those languages, but students are becoming more aware that there are other cultures in our world to appreciate and that knowing a second language is valuable. In addition, these books simply open up space for discussion about the wider world.
It has been exciting to see students experiencing their own culture within the pages of books for the first time, but it is not only Hmong students benefiting from the new books. Many of the books are simply good stories and students can make connections to the situations and personalities within the stories regardless of their ethnic background. Also, one of our more popular books is Hmong Textile Designs. It’s a non-fiction book filled with beautiful Hmong designs used to embellish story cloths, clothing, purses and other textiles. Students love to look at them and make pictures inspired by the designs.
Over the past few years I have been purchasing many books that reflect our multicultural world and connecting with authors from diverse backgrounds. Our school had an amazing visit from Kashmira Sheth and second grade got to Skype with Mina Javaherbin too. I will continue to try to reach out beyond our community and continue to learn from others.
In January I celebrated the first Multicultural Children’s Book Day and created a rather lengthy list of my favorite diverse kidlit on Goodreads. All of the books on the list have a home in our school library. I’m excited to continue on this journey with my students – learning more about others and about ourselves through the books we explore together. If you are interested in adding more diverse literature to your life and library, here is a link to some great resources. Please share some of your favorite diverse children’s or young adult literature in the comments!
Crystal Brunelle teaches in the library at Northern Hills Elementary School in Wisconsin. She is the co-founder of richincolor.com and blogs there as well as on her personal blog readingtl.blogspot.com. You may also find her on Twitter as @librarygrl2.