Diversity: One Thing YOU Can Do Now

Elizabeth Bluemle -- February 3rd, 2015

Before I get into my blog post, of course I need to jump and shout for the books that took home medals and honors at the ALA Youth Media Awards yesterday! Congratulations, all of you wonderful, talented writers and artists!! I was in the audience for the awards announcements in Chicago and was overjoyed to see many of my own personal favorites celebrated. Since everyone in the children’s literature blogoverse is likely to be writing about the awards, I will not, except to say that I was gratified to see a more diverse list of winners across the award spectrum than we have perhaps ever seen before. Thank you, dedicated ALA committees!


I was fortunate enough to attend the Day of Diversity sponsored collaboratively by ALSC (the Association for Library Service to Children) and the CBC (Children’s Book Council). I can only imagine the amount of time and effort that went into planning this event! Thank you, ALSC and CBC, for taking this important step toward action for children and children’s books. The event was the first of its kind for these organizations, and as such there was a limited number of attendees. It felt like a kickoff to what I hope can turn into a two- or three-day conference for hundreds of participants.

(Note: I will recap the presentations in a future post. For those who would like to read up on the day sooner, Debbie Reese did a nice job of presenting the day and her own perspective here, Zetta Elliott posted some of her thoughts here, Edi Campbell posted here, and Sarah Park Dahlen has posted here. Now that everyone is returning from ALA, you can also use a search engine and type in ALA, CBC, and “Day of Diversity” — several blog posts should crop up this week.) If you’re impatient to get to the “what one thing can I do now?” part of this post, it’s at the end.

Every attendee brought a different perspective and range of experiences to this conference. The speakers were eloquent and moving, and the moderators were fabulous. There were some deeply personal stories told and some grim statistics and urgent pleas shared that I will carry with me always.

What I appreciated most was the focus on action, not just talk. This conversation—about the appalling lack of diversity in children’s books and its severe life- and culture-altering consequences—has been going on for decades, and yet little has changed even as the urgency has grown. In fact, some numbers (for both literacy achievement and for diverse representation of ALL of our nation’s people in children’s books) have gotten *worse* over the past several years. With so much conversation happening in the mainstream, especially over the past couple of years, especially with the advent of movements like #WeNeedDiverseBooks and other social media efforts, how can that be?

It can be because the power structure itself, the race and class make-up of the decision makers and gatekeepers, hasn’t changed much at all. It is not inclusive, not by a long shot, not yet. There are hard conversations to be had and radical shifts to be made.

We all know by experience that large-scale social change can grind all too slowly. So what can we do now, each one of us, right now, to create change in our own communities and spheres of influence? “Moving Into Action” panel moderator Satia Orange challenged us at the end of the day: What will you personally do to create change? What will you do by the end of this week? by February 28? and by the end of August 2015? “Do something dramatic!” she said. People were invited to come to the guest microphone and share something specific that they will do to make change happen.

This challenge is such a good one! Specific, concrete steps are the ones that stick and end up leading to long-term, big-picture goals.

So, what can one person do?

Here are a few possibilities, ideas that came out of discussions during the day. I invite you to choose one, just one, to do this week. And one (maybe the same one, expanded, or a different one) to do in February. And then inspire yourself to plan a little bigger to begin by August.

The ideas below are all things one person can do. Really.

1) Adopt a classroom and send the children a book (or books, if you can afford it) every month to enrich and diversify their collection. For ideas on titles, check out The Brown Bookshelf, the CBC Resource Page of book lists, the book lists created for Pat Mora’s Día de los Niños programs, my own World Full of Color diversity database, SLJ’s list of culturally diverse books, Debbie Reese’s recommended lists (one of which is here) and any number of great lists that can be found online. This idea was shared by Crazy QuiltEdi blogger Edi Campbell. It’s so simple and so helpful an idea that it knocked my socks off. Just about anyone reading this post can do this, and spread the word. Gather friends together to sponsor an underserved school! Each friend adopts one classroom and donates a book a month. 

2) Buy a book by an author of color featuring a main protagonist of color. This is pretty simple, folks. And I would add that if you do that at your local bookstore, they will be more likely to continue to stock their shelves with diverse books.

3) Go further and shift your reading habits. Early in the year, I had thought it would be interesting to try reversing the dismal national publishing statistics; that is, I would read 90% books featuring main characters of color and only 10% featuring white people. Unfortunately, that’s unrealistic for several reasons including the lack of books to fill that 90%, as well as my bookseller’s need to read to read a lot of what’s on publishers’ lists to make buying decisions. So what I came up with, what my experiment will be for 2015, is to Read 50/50. I think it’s very possible to alternate in this way, and I invite anyone interested to join me. Thanks to Zetta Elliott, I also just read Ebony Elizabeth Thomas’s Dark Fantastic blog post and learned about NCTE’s 2015 National African American Read In, a month-long reading invitational. Share your reading plan with friends. Share your passion!

4) Help a teacher by alerting her or him to Perspectives for a Diverse America‘s K-12 Literacy-Based Anti-Bias Curriculum. Common Core teaching plans often limit themselves to Appendix B titles, but don’t need to. Link them to Appendix D, a resource for diverse titles and Common Core applications.

5) Partner up. Ask your local hospital to consider including library card applications in the take-home bags at hospitals. If the hospital doesn’t already work with Reach Out and Read, a program that helps distribute free books to families, tell them about it. Same with any pediatricians you know.

6) Chat with a librarian. One librarian at the Day of Diversity mentioned that their system gives kids a “side card” that allows them to check out paperback books even when they have overdue books and can’t use their regular cards. That way, children aren’t ever punished by withholding reading. Talk with your local librarian and invite her or him to consider such a program.

7) Make books your birthday gifts. For adults as well as children, give people the pleasure of a book that you love, and branch out with the choices. Find beautiful books written by authors of color, books that offer mirrors or windows into the lives of main characters of color. Surprise someone with a glorious book!

I’ve got plans for the bookstore, as well, and will continue to blog about our efforts and diversity in publishing and children’s books here at ShelfTalker.

What are your ideas for grassroots diversifying?

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