Daily Archives: February 16, 2016

We Need Diverse Books – An Educator’s Perspective


Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and Eleventh Stack are celebrating Black History Month by highlighting books, music and movies by African American Artists. What follows is a guest post by one of our patrons, Patti Jo Rak, a coordinator for Reading Is Fundamental. We also have a ton of great events and programs for children, teens and adults. You can view all of our Black History Month posts here.

While attending 1st grade in the early 60s, I was introduced to the Dick and Jane reading series. At the time, I found it delightful and couldn’t wait to read about what “adventure” Dick, Jane and little Sally would have next; I certainly did not realize my classmates and I were being presented with a very narrow viewpoint of the world. As a six year old, I didn’t think critically about the all-white, gender-stereotyped characters that lived in a lovely neighborhood where the biggest dilemma of the day was how to catch their dog Spot for a much needed bath. I didn’t give it a second thought; I was growing up in the middle class suburbs, and my playmates and home life had many similarities to the characters and situations in the Dick and Jane stories.

Now, as an educator and a parent, I am aware of how important it is for all children to see and have access to books that are reflective of their families, heritage and neighborhoods, and books that are reflective of the lives of others. Many of the classic picture books available to me in kindergarten and early elementary school were about animals and nonsensical Seuss characters and therefore I still didn’t see characters who truly reflected the world.  As I grew a little older, I loved reading fairy tales, but again the illustrations in my books did not include people of color. Even the Land of Oz was about a white girl from the nation’s heartland.

My neighborhood was not a diverse place, and some of my first opportunities to be exposed to different types of people and situations were through books. The first books that come to my memory that demonstrated diversity were the wonderful Ezra Jack Keats books, which are considered classics. (One of my best friends tells me The Snowy Day was the first book she ever got with her library card as a child.)  Next, as I continued on my journey as a reader, I was interested in fiction and non-fiction stories from other countries, and I started expanding my view.  I had access to a local library, and also good book selections in the public school libraries.

bookcover (1)First my teachers, and then my professors, were suggesting and assigning books that brought an awareness of the diversity of my own country.  Some of these included Sounder by William H. Armstrong, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest J. Gaines, and of course Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  Reading definitely enlightened my view of the world and I have always been grateful for the easy access I had to books.  Today, I continue to explore the world through reading.

For the past 16 years, I have been coordinating the Reading is Fundamental (RIF) program for a Head Start program.  This program provides and distributes books for ownership to children who do not have easy access to books.  This important program had federal funding up to a few years ago, and is now funded through the private sector.  As the person in charge of ordering the books, I truly try to choose books that celebrate and represent all types of children and families.

Selecting diverse books is a much easier job now as compared to when I was reading Dick and Jane, but there is still work to be done.  Recently, an 11-year old girl made news for starting a book drive at her school, tired of reading only about “white boys and their dogs.” If you are interested in diversity in publishing, look into the We Need Diverse Books movement, which has been one of the leading voices in promoting authors and publishers of color. If you are having a hard time finding the books you are looking for, you can also ask a librarian for book suggestions that cover specific topics, situations or characters.

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In honor of Black History Month, here are a few suggested titles for children by African-American authors:

-Patti Jo Rak, M.Ed

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