When my daughter came home with her summer reading list, I was jolted by its time-traveling quality. I don’t mean transporting—I mean traveling through time backward to my own childhood in the 1970s. All nine authors on the list of required reading are white.
For those who are already mad at me after two sentences, because you are dead tired of “identity politics” (as concerns about diversity are often dismissed), put down your pitchforks for a moment and hear me out. The content of required reading lists matters not just for my kid, but for your kids, and not just for kids, but all of us who live in America.
My daughter’s book list improves somewhat when it comes to non-required reading. The “recommended” list includes nine authors of color (though the majority are filed under “world literature”). Between the two lists, the combined total number of authors is 53, meaning that writers of color do account for 1/6 of the books, which is clear progress over the book lists of my youth. But the fact that every writer of color is optional yields an all-white required list which could have appeared in not just any past year, but any decade.
Consider all the combinations of race, ethnicity, and gender possible between those 53 authors—and yet 26 authors, a full majority, are white men (who only make up 30 percent of the US population). That dominance stands in stark contrast with most demographic groups. For instance, there is just one African-American woman (Sherri L. Smith) and one latina (Christina Diaz Gonzalez), both on the non-required list. The only non-white people represented in any depth are asians—and you can guess on which list they fall.
When I first started discussing this among friends, I heard a variant of the same refrain that one always hears when advocating for diversity in representation: “I’m sure the list was focused on good books, not the skin color of the authors.” I believe that’s both true and unpersuasive; the vague and subjective determination of “good” is a mindless, educationally limited standard. To repeatedly mimic what was deemed good enough in the past is just about the most passive possible way to create a curriculum.
I’m not remotely suggesting that the books on the all-white list are not well-written or less than powerful. “Where the Red Fern Goes” by Wilson Rawls (dead now 30 years) came out when my mother (now dead as well) was a teenager, and she loved it, as she told me when I read it at age 12. (And yes, I cried.)
But the world is full of similarly excellent and impactful books. (See below.)
Would anyone argue that the quality of Rawls’ slender volume is so profound and unmatchable that it still requires a must-read position after 65 years? It doesn’t denigrate Rawls at all to acknowledge that there have been critically acclaimed books with timeless messages published since then.
Making room for newer and more diverse works is a way to acknowledge that we no longer live in Red Fern America. As of July 2016, the US Census Bureau estimates that roughly four of every 10 Americans is non-white or mixed ethnicity. If you look at kids under 18, we’re approaching 50/50. And we’ve just wrapped up the third academic year in which more students of color than white students were enrolled in our public schools. Those numbers aren’t about politics or agendas; those are the facts about the place we call home.
Why should you care? When a required education can’t keep up with the world surrounding its students, it has harmful effects for everyone involved.
Absenting whole groups from a school curriculum sends a devaluing message about those populations to all learners. For students from those unrepresented communities, it decreases their sense of belonging and their ownership in society; if your country continually forgets your existence, what is your motivation to contribute and participate?
For majority students, the absences of others’ stories implicitly teaches them that their communities are of higher value, the default “norm.” They end up less prepared for navigating differences and are less adept at keeping up with our evolving culture than those with more exposure to lives not their own. On the flip side, the benefits of diversity in education have been proven again and again.
We don’t have to accept the casual erasure of diversity. More than that: we shouldn’t. As a gay Latinx dad with a daughter of color, I wrote a YA novel with only non-majority leads. And I’m fortunate enough to have outlets like this one in which I get to advocate for more inclusion. But you don’t need to have a public platform to make a difference. If your kid comes home with a list that makes you cringe, you can easily be a part of the solution.
Reach out to your child’s principal and Language Arts department, sharing suggestions for more diverse reading. I know that dedicated people who care about their students made the reading list my daughter came home with, and that probably applies to the folks who made yours, but they can make even better lists with more information. (See below for links to broaden your horizons).
And don’t stop there: volunteer to help with future lists. Teachers are perpetually underfunded and under-supported in America, so offering teamwork instead of mere criticism is a way of pitching in, of making an “us” and not just a “them.” And isn’t that the point of promoting diversity anyway?
9 Authors for a Better Booklist
(Pictured in right hand photo above: Jacqueline Woodson, Alex Gino, Julia Alvares, Jason Reynolds, Hena Khan, Joseph Bruchac, Nina LaCour, C.B. Lee, Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich)
With many thousands of good books to choose from, where to start? If you want to celebrate an author who has already stood the test of time but offers a diverse perspective, why not Julia Alvarez? If prizes like the National Book Award and Newbury Honor Medal are your bag, how about Jacqueline Woodson?
You can also look at the crop of diverse writers making critics swoon right now. Jason Reynolds can hardly keep up with the writing prizes earned by his New York Times bestsellers. Reynolds is one of the authors often cited as an example of the #ownvoices movement, in which writing about a particular community comes from its own members, and not just allies. You can absorb a story about gender fluidity from Alex Gino or Muslim identity from Hena Khan.
Though the whiteness of my daughter’s list drew my attention, it’s not just about skin color. Diversity often means intersections, like faith and sexuality (as in The God Box by Alex Sanchez). A single voice can contain multitudes, from Abenaki-Slovak-American Joseph Bruchac to Jamaican-Nigerian-American Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich.
I find it especially rewarding when the authors and their characters are non-majority but the subject matter has nothing to do with diversity at all—like with C. B. Lee’s science fiction superhero series and Nina LaCour’s rock band road trip. And that’s just scratching the surface, as the resources to follow make clear.
5 Resources for Discovering Diverse Writers
American Library Association Summer Reading List 2017 (Note: This is a diverse list but not diversity-specific)