When a List Is More Than Just a List by Kirsten LeClerc
A few years ago I wrote a Nerdy Book Club post that was widely shared and (mostly) well received. It was titled “Windows, Mirrors, and Portals to Magic”. I made a mistake in that piece, though. I neglected to cite Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, the scholar who came up with the concept of windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors in children’s literature. (If you aren’t familiar with her work, please take two minutes to watch this video.)
I often make mistakes in my own work as a school librarian. My collection is not as diverse as it could be. I need to be better about weeding outdated materials. I probably choose too many silly books to read aloud and not enough serious ones.
I have to admit that I felt a sense of relief and connection when I read a recent Twitter thread by Angie Manfredi, the Youth Services Consultant for the State Library of Iowa. She wrote about making a mistake in her work:
She spoke about the need to apologize and try to correct the mistake, learn from it, and then move on.
I’m not sure if I can count myself a member of the #DiversityJedi. I am a person who generally goes out of my way to avoid controversy. But something happened this spring that made me feel like I had to speak out on the issue of diversity in books.
In early March, a new list of books came out for next year’s North Carolina Elementary Battle of the Books. I’m always a bit like a kid on Christmas morning when a book list comes out…but this one was a disappointment.
There is nothing wrong with any of the books on the list; they’re all great books. But with the exception of Front Desk and The Great Treehouse War, nearly all of these books feature a cast of predominantly white characters. None of the books have black or Latinx main characters. I felt like I could not, with a clear conscience, pass this list out to students at my school.
Luckily I work with a team of amazing librarians in my district who felt exactly the same way. We drafted a letter to the committee, stating this:
In our school district and in districts around the state of North Carolina, we serve students of all racial backgrounds. We owe it to our students to make our library collections, and also our statewide book lists, be inclusive and reflect the diversity of our communities. As we all work to close achievement gaps in our schools, we need to examine the messages—explicit and implicit–that we send to our students. By choosing a list of books lacking diversity, we are essentially telling some students that Battle of the Books is not for them.
It is not too late to make changes to the list for next year. Please revisit the list with a critical lens and examine the characters and titles that were chosen. We all need diverse books. There are so many great books out there in the world; we can do better.
The committee chair was kind in her response, but clear: the list had already been selected, and we were free to nominate titles for the upcoming year. No changes would be made to this year’s list.
So, as a team, we created our own list for our students. We talked about lots of different titles and kept some from the original list. We debated and compromised and decided upon these 15 books for next year:
Is it a perfect list? No. I don’t think there is such a thing as a perfect book list. But it’s a pretty darn good one. You’ll notice that there are two books by Jason Reynolds on the list. We made that decision because, thanks to the hard work and persistence of one of our colleagues at Asheville High, he’s coming to visit our schools next year!
My intention for this post is not to shame anyone, but to bring attention to the need for diversity on statewide book lists. When we choose to celebrate a handful of books, we send the message to students that these are “good” books. What does that say to students who cannot see themselves reflected in any of those books?
Not all kids want to participate in Battle of the Books, and that’s ok; it’s not for everyone. However, everyone deserves a chance to find windows and mirrors in the books they read. I hope that next year the NC Battle of the Books committee will make diversity a higher priority. We all need diverse books. Every. Single. One of us.
Kirsten LeClerc is a writer and teacher-librarian in Asheville, NC. She is lucky to work with an incredible team of librarians in Asheville City Schools. Find her on Twitter @kirleclerc or at www.kirstenleclerc.com .