Dear ISD Community,
Black History Month is upon us, and the library will have what appears to be some odd transformations. As always, we will line the shelves with books by and about Africans, African Americans, and authors of the diaspora. The displays will feature civil rights leaders, revolutionaries, change makers, and Black protagonists who take a hero’s journey, just to name a few. The bulletin board will feature black athletes, musicians, historians, leaders, activists, and do-gooders.
So where is the oddity? When you walk into the library’s junior fiction section, you will find that the vast majority of the books will be backwards. This year, I took an idea from other librarians who have done the same thing in the past. This Black History Month, the junior fiction section will only have books facing the right direction if they meet the following criteria: The books are written by Africans, African Americans, or of the diaspora. Or if the book features a black protagonist, or even a black sidekick.
The end result? Rather devastating. Most of the books in the junior fiction section are backwards. The pronounced dearth of books with protagonists that look like our student body can be jolting to the ISD community. It is certainly a jolt to me.
A careful examination of the junior fiction shelves reveals that publishers are more likely to publish books that feature the heroic adventures of mice, beavers, cats, dogs, or mythical dragons than the adventures and journeys of black boys and black girls. I can’t lay one hundred percent of the blame at the feet of publishers, however. This many headed Scylla includes a responsibility placed upon ISD’s history of librarians, one of which includes me. What have we librarians been purchasing?!
Proudly, I can only speak for my personal efforts to bring stories to the ISD community that have a reflection of our student body and parent community. What the junior fiction section reveals to me, however, is that I have ignored the “middle child”. The high school shelves have flourished! Angie Thomas, Nic Stone, Walter Dean Meyers, Boubacar Boris Diop, Wole Soyinka, Morrison, Baldwin, Lourde, Naidoo, Adichie, Achebe, and more stand at attention ready for your interest. Come and get ‘em!
The elementary section too has flourished. The picture books for children crowd the shelves. Jacqueline Woodson’s works about kindness and courage are low hanging fruit for elementary students. Sukey and the Mermaid are always elementary school favorites. And now with attention on the elementary school play, Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, these picture books have found renewed popularity. The growth in representation for the elementary students seems to have doubled.
But let me also offer a cautionary caveat. Advocacy is still necessary. My pursuit of elementary school works that reflect our student body is a chore. I have to scour vendors for publications that feature a hero or protagonist of color. I will repeat, publishers jump at the opportunity to publish the adventures of a mouse before the adventures of a black child.
So let me bring this story back to our library’s poor “middle child”. Sadly, the middle school book collection has gone the way of an actual middle child. Ignored, neglected, and left to her own devices. Poor middle school child! I have to hang my head in shame and acknowledge that I have more work to do. I have not done enough to fill the middle school shelves with stories that are a reflection of our middle school student population.
The display reveals that all is not lost. The backward display generates confusion, then discussion, and then a desire to read what we do have.
Here are the questions I ask students after doing a critical examination of the junior fiction collection:
How many books have you read that feature a Black protagonist or hero? How many books do you own that feature a Black protagonist or hero? Why are the stories of Black boys and Black girls important?
Some remarkable conversations are generated. My favorite answer this week was from a third grader. “We should write our own books, and then give them to you, and you can put our books on the shelves.” She floored me! What a glorious answer! There has to be a way to not only harness that passion, but to maintain it through the course of this young student’s educational career. Children love sharing their stories, and they love coming in to the library to use scratch paper and to draw. Somewhere, there have to be a talented educators that can help children marry those two talents. How many of us will step up and make this goal a reality?