Diversity is the heartbeat of our humanity. Books are mirrors into our inner lives, and also windows to the world. Our school and classroom libraries, on and offline, should be a reflection of both.
Finding a character who lives part of your own story is deeply powerful for a growing child. The thrill that ran through me when I recognized myself, my scrawny, shy, dreaming self, when I read Anne of Green Gables, or the thrill that ran through me when I recognized another part of myself in Jo in Little Women, who penned her stories in her "garrett," is unforgettable to me. All children should have the opportunity to have that thrill run through them, the recognition of a character that is alike to you at your core.
Having those stories that accompany us as we try to make sense of the world and our role within it builds confidence, resilience and the courage to say, “My story matters.” For this reason, the word "diversity" is sometimes made too narrow. It should encompass every aspect of the human condition, from race to culture to language to experience to sensation to struggle to joy. Diversity is the human condition.
Jaqueline Woodson, winner of the 2014 National Book Award for "Brown Girl Dreaming" has said that she writes to connect with people who don’t often see their narratives in literature, saying, “I want to be there for the people who need it. I don’t want anyone to walk through the world feeling invisible ever again.” Newbery Award winner Kwame Alexander exorts children's writers to “be intentional in your effort to write the kind of world you want your children to live, learn and love in.” Diversity is not just about the characters in the books, it is about the landscapes we expose our children to, the landscapes we create.
The Harry Potter series offers richly diverse characters in all their human complexity. They are diverse because they are humanly diverse. In fact, it is not clear what color Hermione's skin is by reading the series. She is described by the movie image of her as being white but this is not at all defined by the words in the series itself. Wouldn't it be amazing if we could move past a traditional definition of "diversity" and into a more layered, more complex version of what diversity means? Making sure to give our students access to not only characters who are brown and beige and tan like them, but to stop imagining all characters as white to begin with.
And then, the windows of the world that reading provides, the sheer power of culture and place and home and what that means to each of us. Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall brings us to the world of Lupita, the oldest of eight siblings in a Mexican-American family whose life is transformed when her mom is knocked down by cancer. In Money Hungry by Sharon Flake we can see the world through the eyes of Raspberry Hill, a 13-year-old whose memories of homelessness and desperation lead her to some revelations.
Our classrooms may be planted in one zip code and another, but the texts we offer our children are passports for them to meet their future colleagues and collaborators, friends and fellow journeyers, and best of all, to meet themselves.
Let's have 2015 be the Year of Diversity in children's literature, and by diversity, I mean the entire gamut of human longings, human hearts, and the places we grow, becoming who we are.