Boys and Dogs and the Problem with Children's Literature

Growing up, I lived with an elementary school librarian. Gifts from Grandma were always books, and some special treasures were even signed by their authors. Gram always knew the exact right books that would speak to me as an individual. I was captivated by the strong female protagonists in Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins, Sing Down the Moon, and My Name is Not Angelica. The adventure on the high seas of Avi’s The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle captured my imagination. The tarring and feathering of Rose Lee’s brother in White Lilacs left me in tears. But not everyone is lucky enough to have a librarian for a grandmother.

Given my background, you would think that my read-aloud choices for my classroom would reflect the diversity of literature to which I had been exposed. I’m embarrassed to say that it wasn’t so for several years. My go-to list included Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Bunnicula, Little House in the Big Woods, Skinnybones, Holes, Where the Red Fern Grows, and Because of Winn Dixie. All excellent pieces of literature, but not exactly the picture of diversity. It wasn’t until a master’s course in diversity that I analyzed my choices. I realized they were unacceptable and marched right down to my favorite resource, the school librarian. From then on, my read-alouds included books like A Single Shard, Becoming Naomi León, and The Watsons Go to Birmingham.

The problem with children’s literature is not just in one classroom. Last week, my friend sent me an article about unsettling trends in the messages conveyed by popular kids’ books (read it at www.attn.com/stories/6589/children’s-books-sexism-diversity). The article cites a 2011 Florida State University study that found significant gender bias in 20th century books for children, with half as many female protagonists, less dialogue for female characters, and stereotypical or marginalized female characters. Even stories about animals are much more likely to feature male protagonists, making them “particularly powerful, and potentially overlooked, conduits for gendered messages.” A 2012 University of Wisconsin-Madison survey sound a disturbing lack of diversity in the books published that year. Only 7.5% of books had significant minority content, and just 6% were written by minority authors.

You may have heard about 11 year-old Marley Dias and her #1000BlackGirlBooks project. Tired of books featuring “white boys and dogs,” Marley started a book drive to collect and donate books with main characters like her that she could look up to, recognizing at a tender age the importance of seeing oneself reflected in literature. Her work gained her national attention and a grant. Marley’s not the only one fighting the good fight. Teaching Tolerance analyzed the Common Core Appendix B and discovered that 69 of the 88 authors were White and that all of the recommended K-3 stories were told from a White perspective. In response, Teaching Tolerance created Perspectives for a Diverse America, which you can download for free when you register at http://perspectives.tolerance.org/?q=central-text-anthology. Other organizations have created book lists to help teachers and librarians. You can find the Welcoming Schools list at www.welcomingschools.org/pages/bibliographies-books-to-engage-students. The Anti-Defamation League’s website has a Book the Month feature (http://www.adl.org/education-outreach/curriculum-resources/c/book-of-the-month.html).

I know these books aren’t going to buy themselves. I think it’s a shame that the general public doesn’t know that teachers have to buy the books that are in their classrooms. The summer before I started teaching (and before I even had a paycheck in hand), I remember scouring eBay for book collections for my classroom library. My priority was definitely getting the most volume for my dollar, not diversity. We need systemic change. But until then, there are things we can do. Does your PTA give you gift certificates to the book fair or allow you to create a wishlist for donations? Then select books that are both mirrors of your students as well as windows to other experiences and identities. Check out your local International Reading Association branch. The Washington State branch had an Easy Grant program with a one page application for $50 for books. I got it twice. Your school librarian has to work within a strict budget, but in my experience, is more than willing to take suggestions from teachers. You can help make sure new books are more diverse and work together to feature them prominently by reading them to your class, creating a display, or (my favorite) wearing it around your neck (nothing makes a kid want to read a book more than you wearing it and saying nothing about it).

So my suggestion for you today is to evaluate your classroom library. Look at the books you choose to read aloud as well as the books available for students to select. Are there potentially damaging messages about gender? Do they reflect different racial perspectives? I’m not saying you have to give up Peter Hatcher and Stanley Yelnats. Just make sure our friends Karana and Tree-ear get some air time too.