Monday, March 20, 2017

A Need For Diverse Books

By Miss Audrey, Youth Services Dept. Librarian

Here at the public library, we serve people from all walks of life. Our community has every combination of race, family structure, religion, orientation, and ability, all looking for books to read, movies to watch, and groups to join. It’s impossible for a librarian to read every book and know each plot. It can be hard, sometimes, to know which materials pass the bar of quality, and which ones only serve to further stereotypes. Which books will validate our kids by properly representing them? Which books will introduce our young customers to people who are different than themselves in a way that will build compassion, empathy, and kindness? Which books manage to accomplish all of this in a way that is fun, exciting, thought provoking, and otherwise likely to encourage a love of reading? From all the many, many books that are published in a year, which books stand out?

Luckily, we have help. Conversations revolving around these questions have been taking place for a while now, and they have resulted in some excellent book lists and award programs. Some of these awards, like the Coretta Scott King author and illustrator awards, have been around for decades (founded in 1969, first award given in 1970). Other booklists are fairly new.

Some of our favorite resources are listed below, with a brief description and quotations from their websites.

We Need Diverse Books:   Their mission statement:  “Putting more books featuring diverse characters into the hands of all children.”  Their vision:  “A world in which all children can see themselves in the pages of a book.”  This is a relatively new organization, but they’ve already put a lot of work into their vision, and when they’re discussing diversity, they’re discussing ALL its aspects: racial, gender, religious, cultural, sexual, disability, etc. One of the best features of their website is their booklists. Organized by age and reading level, they help guide kids to make excellent reading choices based on the child’s own reading interests.

Coretta Scott King Awards   “are given annually to outstanding African American authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults that demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values.  The award commemorates the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and honors his wife, Mrs. Coretta Scott King, for her courage and determination to continue the work for peace and world brotherhood.”

Pura Belpré Award:  “The award is named after Pura Belpré, the first Latina librarian at the New York Public Library. The Pura Belpré Award, established in 1996, is presented annually to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.”

Schneider Family Book Award:  “honor an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences.”

Stonewall Book Awards:  “The first and most enduring award for GLBT books….[it is] sponsored by the American Library Association's Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Round Table.”
This is another award that has been around for a long time (1971), and the website contains a treasure trove of content for children, teens, and adults.

Disability in Kidlit blog:  “is dedicated to discussing the portrayal of disability in middle grade and young adult literature. We publish articles, reviews, interviews, and discussions examining this topic from various angles—and always from the disabled perspective.  We believe that a thoughtful portrayal of disability requires more than memorizing a list of symptoms; we hope that sharing disabled people’s thoughts on stereotypes, pet peeves, particular portrayals, and their own day-to-day experiences will help our readers learn about the realities of disability, which are often different from what we see in popular media.” 

It is with a heavy heart that I tell you that this site will not be updated much past this spring. However, the site administrators assure us that they will keep up one of the blog’s best features: their Honor Roll, a list of the contributors’ vetted favorite books, many of which have attached reviews. The Honor Roll can be searched by age (middle grade vs. young adult novels), disability, genre, and publication year.

Below, you will find reviews of some of our recently published favorites that feature diversity:

Flying Lessons &Other Stories edited by Ellen Oh
Short stories
Ages 8 – 12

This stunning anthology features ten stories by some of children’s literature’s biggest names: Kwame Alexander, Jacqueline Woodson, Matt de la Pena, and more. The themes, settings, and characters vary widely from story to story: a modern Native American man teaching his nephew how to tell tall tales, an African-American girl who feels isolated as the only child of color in her small town, an athletic wheelchair-using boy trying to connect to his basketball playing father, and more. While these sound like very specific stories, the result is a collection of tales that is universally relatable and filled with optimism and truth. This is a recommended read for everyone.

Ages 9 – 12

Pinmei, a shy little mouse of a girl, lives with her grandmother, the Storyteller. People from their village and the surrounding Chinese countryside come to listen to her tales for hours. All this changes when the Emperor comes, kidnapping all the men of the village to build a giant wall in the North. As if that weren’t bad enough, he takes the Storyteller, too. Now Pinmei and her best friend, Yishan, must go on an epic quest to get her back. This wondrous story features fantastic Chinese folktales, settings, and creatures, weaving them together for a gloriously satisfying conclusion. Perfect for any fantasy lover.

Garvey’s Choice  by Nikki Grimes
Novel in verse
Ages 8 – 12

Garvey’s main enthusiasms in life are books (specifically science fiction) and astronomy. His father doesn’t understand why he can’t be more like his athletic older sister, and the kids at school constantly needle him for being overweight. Still, this resilient African-American boy has good friend in Joe, who encourages him to try a new hobby – the school choir. Soon, Garvey has found a new passion, has made a new friend, and has possibly discovered something he has in common with his dad. This easy-to-read story depicts a kind and honest protagonist dealing with realistic school and family issues with intelligence and budding self-awareness. A perfect gentle read.

The Other Boy  by M. G. Hennessey
Ages 8 – 12

Shane is your average middle-school age, baseball-playing, aspiring graphic novelist. Though his life isn’t perfect (his dad tries, but doesn’t really understand him), his relationship with his mom is pretty great, his best friend Josh is solid, and his crush seems to return his interest. But Shane also has a secret, and eventually rumors start to circulate – rumors that he used to go by she – and the foundation of Shane’s new life starts to shake. When all is said and done, who will Shane have left? This is a heartfelt story about families, friendship, sports, and how we all need a little help from our loved ones. Excellent realistic fiction for anyone, regardless of gender.

Some Kind of Happiness  by Claire Legrand
Ages 8 – 12

Finley Hart has never met her father’s family, but now she’s going to spend a summer with them. Finley is filled with trepidation – not only about getting along with her relatives and her parents’ crumbling marriage, but also over her “blue days,” when everything becomes scary and sad and hard. To cope, she keeps a notebooks filled with her stories about the Everwood. When Finley realizes that the forest behind her grandparent’s home IS the Everwood, and that her friendly cousins are adventurous, her hopes rise. But the forest is harboring secrets and Finley’s Blue Days are starting to show. Can her family learn to deal with the truth? A compelling read for fans of both fantasy and realistic fiction.

The Nest  by Kenneth Oppel
Ages 10+

Something is wrong with Steve’s baby brother. He came home from the hospital, but something about him isn’t working right, and it’s adding to Steve’s worries. Steve worries a lot – about washing his hands, about the knife sharpener man who’s roaming the neighborhood, about the giant wasps’ nest outside the baby’s window and his new-found allergy to their stings. Then, angels arrive in Steve’s dreams, offering to fix the baby. All he has to do is say yes. But what is the price and meaning of perfection? An intensely creepy and thought-provoking book, this one will stay with readers for a long, long time.