By Maya Potiger,
word in black
While browsing the gift shop at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, librarian Kathy Lester saw a young black girl grab a book and run to her parents. Handing it to them, the girl told them that she had read it in school and that it was one of her favorite books.
It was “I Am Enough” by Grace Byers, which features a black girl rocking her big natural curls on the cover. Hearing kids talk like that shows there’s a connection, Lester said.
“If they don’t feel like the books reflect them, they walk away from it, like, ‘This has nothing to do with me,'” said Lester, who is also president of the American Association of School Librarians. . “Where, if they see themselves or find connections between themselves and books, it inspires them to engage more and read more.”
In a 2009 TED talk that has been viewed 31 million times, Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke about the danger of a single story. When children don’t regularly see an accurate representation of themselves, it “sends a powerful and damaging message to them that they don’t belong,” said Katie Potter, senior literacy manager at Lee and Low Books. , a New York-based publisher that has been publishing various children’s books for 30 years.
“When children can’t relate to the books they read, or when the images they see are inauthentic or negative, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are viewed in the world,” Potter said. . “If readers don’t find characters who look like them and experience life in a way they can relate to in the books they read, they can feel lonely and isolated, which negatively impacts their school commitment.
The number of children’s books written by and about black people has steadily increased since 2018, when the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison began keeping a registry. The rate was 17% in 2018, rising to 22% in 2021.
With the exception of black authors, all miscellaneous authors saw significant declines in books published in 2020, followed by large increases in 2021. Additionally, it can take years for a book to be published, so any progress made in 2020 or later might not be seen until 2022 or 2023, according to ABC News.
“The publishing industry still has a long way to go when it comes to portraying black children and protagonists in books,” Potter said.
Students who see themselves reflected in the books they read tend to be more engaged and curious about the different things they can learn from a book, said Derrick Ramsey, co-founder of Young, Black and Lit, an organization in Chicago-area nonprofit focused on increasing access to children’s books that center, reflect and affirm the experiences of black children. It’s important to see “the joys of life and the experiences of black culture” in books, Ramsey said. It allows them to see things society might tell them they can’t, Gage said.
“It empowers them and makes them feel like I can do it too,” said Rochelle Levy-Christopher, founder and CEO of The Black Literacy and Arts Collaborative Project, emphasizing the importance of cultural relevance. “If the story is based on things that we know, that we’re familiar with…we’re really excited because we don’t have that representation. So when we do, it’s all the more impactful.
Almost all miscellaneous authors saw a decline in books published in 2020, followed by significant increases in 2021.
Lester echoes this, saying that students need to “see themselves in books…and then be able to put themselves in other people’s shoes” to help develop a sense of belonging. But, especially for black students, it’s not just about being represented in adjacent history books, but also in realistic, fantasy, and graphic fiction novels.
“Black children have a right to be in a world that includes them,” Potter said. “When black children are exposed to and regularly engaged with texts that center black protagonists and are written and illustrated by black authors, they are validated, affirmed and shown that they matter.”
The BLAC Project and Young, Black and Lit are working to make these books more accessible to children.
At the BLAC project, giving away free books is just the beginning. They organize books according to each child’s specific interests to ensure they get things that will engage them. But the organization also hosts programs and events to provide mentors and resources to help create a more equitable starting point between BIPOC communities and their white peers.
“We offer different types of literacy activities that don’t sound like educational, but they are,” Levy-Christopher said. “They are interactive and they help reinforce and improve literacy levels through different mediums in which the focus is on understanding literacy.”
Young, Black and Lit also makes sure to distribute books to communities that need them. As part of their donation program, they currently distribute 1,500 books each month to approximately 200 organizations across the country. One of their partners is Chance & Bri’s Books & Breakfast, featuring Chance the Rapper, which offers programs and giveaways in Chicago neighborhoods.
These organizations provide vital resources, especially during the summer months when it can be more difficult for students to access books.
“While reading may be the last thing kids want to think about over the summer,” Potter said, “summer reading is important to keep their minds activated and on track for the start of the next year. school year.”
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