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



Dear M.A. Gavin,

If you can’t tell from the title, I am ecstatic it is reading month.  I think this comes only second to my excitement for Banned Books week in September.  You are currently at a point in life and school where everyday is reading month based on how much you have to read.  For me, however, reading month is permission to carry a baker’s dozen worth of books everywhere, wear my Green Eggs and Ham chucks everyday, and shamelessly spout the importance of reading to anyone who will even half listen.  Fortunately, as a teacher, I am not considered crazy despite my overwhelming excitement (yes, overwhelming is accurate word – as my students stare at me wide eyed and jaw dropped 97% of the time).

We have a pretty intense love of reading, but it is impressive how the love of reading comes in different forms.  For example, there is a bibliophile who is a lover of books.  According to Oxford Dictionaries website, a librocubcultarist describes “someone who reads in bed.”  A more colloquial term is a “bookworm,” which we have been called on more than one occasion.

While I think all three of these terms accurately describe me, I don’t think any of them accurately describe  a simple love of reading.  Reading anything and everything you can get your hands on, consuming an abundance of information, in various digital and print forms.  Remember when you first started learning to read, and the feeling you got when you started seeing and reading words all around you?  It is that ecstasy, that simple love and wonder of reading and the world, I return to each March.   I wish there was a word for that feeling, for that love of reading, not of books, not someone who reads quickly, but for someone infatuated by the act of reading and who engages in it as often as possible.  If you know the word for it, let me know; I should add it to my elevator speech.

Additionally, our love of reading is founded in personal idiosyncrasies.  For example, my ability to read in a car, but inability to read for more than five minutes after work without passing out book open in my lap, mouth agape, and drool dribbling down my chin.  Instead, I choose to get up earlier than I need to, in order to enjoy reading in the morning.  The peace I feel on Saturday mornings is near perfection, as the sun rises through my front window, birds chirping, a warm cup of tea in my favorite mug, my current read in my lap, and one or two puppies curled up nearby.  The absurd croaking – RIBIT! – I hear in my head or aloud anytime I come across a gushy part of a story adds to my reading experience every time.  Going back to reread old favorites, receiving recommendations, and exploring new genres, help my love of reading continue to grow and flourish.

I wish you and everyone else a most joyful reading month, full of adventures, romances, inquiries, and discoveries.  I implore you to share your love of reading with children by reading to or with them, and with friends or family members by giving recommendations or discussing what you’ve read.  I leave you with a well used, but ever accurate quote from George R.R. Martin, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies.  The man who never reads lives only one.”

Happy Reading,

M.R. Gavin