As at the start of every school year, teachers have been putting out requests for help with school supplies, through Amazon listings, DonorsChoose projects and other means.
The books have been among the most requested items by teachers across the country each year since the 2018/2019 school year, according to an analysis of data from DonorsChoose.
And, in recent years, there’s been a “major push” for more anti-racism books in the classroom, says Katie Potter, senior literacy manager at Lee & Low Books, a New York-based publisher. which publishes various children’s books. for 30 years. The applications for these books show how black educators demonstrate that “anti-racist stories or narratives are not always about overcoming trauma and marginalization.”
Over the past four school years, these are the most requested books by black teachers via DonorsChoose: “I Am Enough” by Grace Byers, “The Day You Begin” by Jaqueline Woodson, “Hair Love” by Matthew A. Cherry , “Sulwe” by Lupita Nyong’o and “New Kid” by Jerry Craft.
DonorsChoose works with schools and districts nationwide, classifying them as “equity-focused” and “equity-focused.” It defines equity-focused schools as those where at least 50% of students are black, Latino, Native American, Pacific Islander or multiracial, and at least 50% of students qualify for a free or reduced price lunch.
Across all schools, these books are most popular among kindergarten through fifth grade. And, in equity-focused schools, requests for these books have increased every year. Over the three years, “I Am Enough” and “Hair Love” reigned at the top two spots, with 625 and 548 requests.
These titles come as no surprise to Kathy Lester, college librarian and president of the American Association of School Librarians. They all share a common theme of celebrating children and encouraging assertiveness.
“This age of students, it’s important for them to see themselves in literature,” says Lester.
Requests for these books have increased by more than 50% in equity-focused schools each school year, with a 58% increase from the 2019/2020 school year to the 2020/2021 school year, and an increase by 53% from 2020/2021 to 2021/2022.
All five of those books have been banned from libraries and classrooms, and some are still on hold, according to the PEN America database. Craft’s “New Kid” made headlines last year when his authorship visit to a Texas school was canceled after parents claimed the book supported critical race theory.
For more selections, Lee & Low Books curates a diverse reading list for books that bring joy to young readers, which includes titles like Samara Cole Doyon’s “Magic Like That” and Patricia Hubbell’s “Black All Around.” .
“Remember that BIPOC children also deserve to see themselves thrive, to experience the joy of being part of a loving community, and not to be stuck in a cycle of oppressive storytelling that can shape how others see them,” Potter said. .
So why these books?
These books are not popular by chance. A handful of them have been featured in a Netflix Jr. series in 2020, and they’re written by some very influential people — high-profile, award-winning actors, a former football player, and famous authors — and have won a ton of awards, like “New Kid” being the first graphic novel to win the Newbery Medal.
The visibility of these books makes it easier for teachers to get more culturally appropriate books into their classrooms, says Breanna McDaniel, program manager at the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books.
“When you have books that are already getting a lot of different attention, you have the ability to get them into classrooms faster, and they have more staying power than less visible books,” McDaniel says.
Visibility aside, these books also demonstrate joy, acceptance and trust, which isn’t always common in children’s books with BIPOC characters, Potter says. That means making sure classroom libraries have books that show kids of color living the “everyday realities of their lives,” like the first day of school or learning to ride a bike.
“It’s so important for every child to see themselves in all aspects of life, especially those that exude happiness and normalcy,” Potter says.
Books open conversations and inspire pride
Various books do a lot of work in classrooms. On the one hand, they can help open discussions on a range of issues, some of which may not be easy, such as race and social justice.
At his middle school, Lester says “New Kid” is one of the most popular selections among students. Even though the story centers around Craft’s experience as one of the few black children attending a private school, the themes are universal that all children can connect with.
“These particular books allow all kids to see black kids and see some of our uniqueness and differences,” Lester says. “But also, through each of them, there is a universal theme that every child can connect to. And it helps all kids see that while we’re different and we can value those differences, we’re still connected.
Like “New Kid,” McDaniel, who is also an author, saw his book “Hands Up!” banned in various states. Amid national conversations about book bans, McDaniel says it can be difficult to determine which message is most effective, especially for young audiences, in providing an opportunity for enrichment and enlightenment.
“It doesn’t have to be just books presented by black creatives, authors, or illustrators,” McDaniel says, adding, “Any book that provides an opportunity for anyone to examine experiences and connections that might being different from theirs” through a ship that is different from what they have been through” is beneficial.
This list, says Potter, shows that teachers don’t compromise on quality or rigor to have feel-good stories.
“These are complex, joyful, multi-faceted stories and characters that will encourage powerful conversations and multiple readings,” says Potter. “I look at this list and I see a powerful message from these educators to their students: I see you, your full self is welcome here, let’s get to work.”