Reading Representation

Dear M.A. Gavin,

Thank you for sharing your insights on the ever present topic of gun control in America. I agree with much of what you said.

Today however, I would like to write about Reading Month again.  Last year around this time, I wrote a post about my love of reading and the impact of reading on my life. While those things have not changed, I have grown in my reading and use of reading to learn about the world. One thing has become exceedingly clear to me over the past year: REPRESENTATION MATTERS.

Let me explain. Reading month is in March for Read Across America, which is basically a national movement to encourage a love of reading. However, it is historically associated with one children’s book author in particular: Dr. Seuss. His stories are famous for their rhymes, silliness, and fun. They are beloved books for children to listen to, and are reasonably accessible for early independent reading. But they lack diversity, and provide no representation for people of color. Were Dr. Seuss’s books a product of the time? Possibly, but that doesn’t mean in modern times we should overlook this problem.

I am not saying, we should oust Dr. Seuss books entirely. They are fun reads, but I am saying for every Dr. Seuss book read to children, there should be two more with a greater representation of characters. As a former educator in a school with mostly black students, it took a concerted effort to find books that had characters that looked like my students. Consider our own childhood. Black characters have been type cast in books, particularly children’s books. They make appearances in books about slavery, in books about Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and the civil rights movement, and other stereotypes like basketball and athletes, but if you are looking for a fun uplifting, normal children’s storybook with characters of color, finding one in a school library is not the easiest.

This needs to change. Children are malleable; they understand and make connections in ways adults can’t even begin to imagine. The lack of representation in children’s books affects them. It projects an idea that people who look like them aren’t worthy of being in a book. That books are only about people that don’t look like them. While this is generally not intentional, it is an effect. Students are vastly more excited by a book that they can connect with – either because they enjoy the topic, or more so because they can relate to the characters. For our youngest readers and those who Read Across America is intended for this begins by having illustrations that represent diverse readers. Beyond representation of people of color, there is also a huge problem in children’s literature representing people with disabilities, LGBTQ individuals, and women in all of these categories.

Obviously, this is not just an issue in children’s literature. It is a problem in adult literature as well. The other day I went to a bookstore and it had an African American Literature section, but it was one shelf, compared to the six rows of fiction before it. This is a consistent problem in the media and Hollywood. It is not unusual for a white actor or actress to play a character of color. Actors of color are underrepresented, not recognized by awards for their works, and consistently type cast into stereotypical roles.

In my opinion representation in children’s literature is a place where this problem can begin to change long term. If children feel represented and valued, they will know their worth, they won’t doubt their abilities, they will feel empowered. With that they will grow to be transformational leaders, to be change makers. However, it is adults responsibility, as parents, teachers, mentors, writers, publishers, ect., to ensure they are represented and to ensure they have relatable literature to read and engage with that shows characters like them doing amazing things.

As I continue growing my library of children’s literature, I am making a strong effort to ensure my future children see diverse representation in literature, despite being a white child. I want them to respect all people, to see beauty in everyone, and to recognize that regardless of what a person looks like they have power within them. This reading month, I implore all readers to share their love of reading with someone, a child, a friend, a sibling, but more than that, I want you to think about how the literature you share with young readers impacts their view of themselves, of the world, and whether or not it perpetuates the systematic injustices of the world, or if it works to break them.

Yours in reading,

-M.R. Gavin