Underpants Are Optional. Diversity Isn’t. by Arika Dickens
It starts with underpants. Because regardless of type or style, you (usually) have underpants. So it’s a bit surprising – and certainly unforgettable – on a day that you don’t.
“Do you have any Captain Underpants books?”
Ten years ago, I was hired as an elementary librarian. School had already been in session for a month when I walked in the door, and I was desperately trying to keep up: a new school, new district, new state, and new job. I wasn’t fully familiar with the collection when a student asked that question.
“Of course we do,” I replied.
Several moments of fruitless searching later – including a catalog check – left me with a realization: there were no Captain Underpants books in our library. With bold tighty whities and potty-themed jokes, Captain Underpants is one of the more memorable and sought-after characters in literature. It wasn’t unexpected for a student to make this request, and a comic saved the day as an interim fix. Captain Underpants, we all know, is one of those titles that has no trouble drawing an audience.
Let’s fast-forward a decade. This fall, as my 4th and 5th grade students began reading for our annual reading challenge competition, I noticed that ⅓ of the selected books featured more diverse characters than the underwear-as-outerwear superhero. Would this diversity impact student interest? While my kids flocked to read autistic Jason’s struggle with being accepted in Nora Raleigh Baskin’s Anything But Typical (it was the alluded-to romance, I later discovered), Linda Sue Park’s The Kite Fighters was pursued with considerably less enthusiasm.
“I guess I’ll read it,” one grumbled.
Though most weren’t thrilled to read about Korean brothers in the 1400’s, they gave it a go for the sake of competition. Within weeks, any reservations had been forgotten. It was when a 5th grade girl proclaimed, “You know, I didn’t want to read [The Kite Fighters] because it sounded so boring,” that things got interesting.
“So, is it?” asked a classmate skeptically.
“No! It’s actually really good – like really, really good.”
It turns out that the girl has an older, more accomplished sister, and the sibling rivalry seen in Park’s story mirrored parts of her own life. A team competition may have gotten her to pick up the book, but she finished it of her own accord. And recommended the read to others, as well!
One last bit of time travel brings us to last winter. A colleague telephoned after realizing that only a handful our school libraries included Tim Federle’s Better Nate than Ever! Nate, with his flair for the dramatic and love of the stage, struggles with bullying and self-doubt in ways no superhero could fix. It’s Nate’s struggle with self-concept that makes the story controversial for some.
“But is it appropriate in elementary libraries?”
A lively debate and discussion ensued, extolling Nate’s virtues. Then more questions arose. Would it be read? How would readers find this sparkling gem?
Nate’s memorable story may not be as sought-after as wedgie-giving supervillains at this time, but that doesn’t mean it never will be. His story is good. Yes – really really good. It’s how Nate faces bullies and obstacles and life challenges with realism that will make him a superhero to many readers, no cape necessary (though he’d probably like it).
The newly-created We Need Diverse Books grassroots movement is tackling the issue of diversifying children’s lit head on. This is a tremendous, complex effort that requires much work. But a small step we can all do right now is to read a diverse book then get it into the hands of a reader to promote perspective, empathy, and understanding.
All Nate, Jason, and every other diverse character needs is a memorable, bold superhero to champion their stories. Underpants are optional. Any applicants?
Arika Dickens is an elementary teacher-librarian and NBCT in the suburbs of Seattle. Children’s lit is her passion: she spent six years on the WA Sasquatch committee and reads and reviews hundreds of books annually. Before moving to the great Northwest, she lived across the South and earned her MLIS from the University of South Carolina. Spending time with her husband and children, J (age 7) and H (age 5) is the best part of her day. You can follow her on Twitter @LibrarianArika or visit her blog at www.librarianarika.wordpress.com