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Can Children See Themselves in the Books on Your Shelves? Part I

by on July 1, 2014

There is a cultural divide in the books that celebrate America’s diversity with those that present a one- size-fits-all, white, middle class perspective on American life.  There is a divide between children’s experience with libraries, too. Children of color have limited exposure to the library or its services.

Libraries can bridge this cultural divide, so that children of all colors can benefit from exposure to literature that mirrors themselves, their culture and their families and develop a respect for those who are different from them.

In a March 2014 New York Times op-ed, author, Walter Dean Myers, asks the question, “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?1 His question echoes the 2013 study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s statistics: Of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people, 57 about Latinos, 69 about Asians or Pacific/Asian Americans and 39 about Native Americans2.

The CCBC’s answer to Myers’ question is what propelled me into becoming a librarian.  As an ESL teacher, I encountered many newly arrived students who had no prior experience whatsoever with a public library.  There was a missing link in their emerging English literacy—experience with a library and books that they could identify with.  My intervention then was a field trip to the public library and their first library card. They ran excitedly from book stack to free Internet to magazine section as if they were given a ticket to Disney World.  Their excitement was contagious; I was soon enrolled in library school.

And now, as the “unofficial” school librarian in a jail school program, I have student after student, all boys of color, tell me that they either never had a library card or had never visited the public library.  These American-born students lack the same experience that my former ESL students did and lack the same access to books with characters who they can identify with or who reflect their cultural heritage.

Sadly, these young men’s lack of library experiences has resulted in the “harmful effects” that Starr LaTronica points to in Libraries Working To Bridge The Cultural Divide. There, she links children not being exposed to “print or digital materials that reflect themselves or their culture” with low self-esteem, intolerance toward others, and cultural invisibility3.

There is, indeed, a cultural divide in books that celebrate America’s diversity.

Librarians, especially children’s librarians, need to seek out and read diverse literature. Crystall Brunelle, school librarian, offers these suggested blog sites: Diversity on the Shelf, Latin@s in KidLit, or Africa Reading Challenge.4. In addition, the CCBC compiled an extended list of blogs and reading resources5.

Aptly, the director of CCBC, Kathleen Horning, emphasizes that “buying a book is a political act.” She stresses this simple axiom: “If we want to see change, if we want to see more diversity in literature, we have to buy the books.” We need to add them to our collections.

Librarians need to actively seek the books that promote diversity and build that bridge between cultures.  ALA’s recommended lists such as the Coretta Scott King Awards, promoting the best in children’s African-American literature, or the Pura Belpre Award, which lists the best books that celebrate Hispanic heritage, are two good places to begin.  But lists and recommendations abound.  This month, School Library Journal also provided readers with a list of culturally diverse books.6.I hope these lists encourage you to expand your YA collection. In part two of my article, I’ll discuss innovative programs that promote cultural diversity.


  1. Myers, W. D. (2014, March 15). Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books? The New York Times. Retrieved May 20, 2014.
  2. Children’s Books by and about People of Color Published in the United States. (n.d.). Children’s Book By and About People of Color. Retrieved May 20, 2014.
  3. LaTronica, S. (2014, May 1). Libraries Working to Bridge the Cultural Divide. Huffington Post. Retrieved May 20, 2014.
  4. Brunelle, C. (2014). Everyday Diversity: A Teacher Librarian Gives Practical Tips To Make a Difference. School Library Journal, I(Diversity). Retrieved May 20, 2014.
  5. Diversity Resources. (n.d.). Reading For Life Blog. Retrieved May 20, 2014.
  6. Culturally Diverse Books Selected by SLJ’s Review Editors. (2014, May 1). School Library Journal. Retrieved May 20, 2014, from

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