As a librarian, it’s Hayley DeRoche’s job to be up on diversity in books. Then she realized her daughter’s books were a blinding lily-white. Whoops!
When you’re the kid of a librarian like my daughter is, you end up with a lot of books. Like, a lot of books. And when you’re the librarian herself, you end up assessing a lot of books. Like, a lot of books. I read a lot not just for pleasure but for work. It’s part of my job to find good stuff, and see what’s out there in the world. Not just fun books that appeal to me, but books that appeal to a wide variety of readers. Books with different viewpoints, diverse characters, the right books for the right readers. I look for books with characters who use wheelchairs, who experience autism, who are not all of one race, who have Down Syndrome, who wear a hijab…
But you know the old saying that the cobbler’s child goes without shoes? There’s some truth to it here.
I was chatting with folks about possible topics for the parenting podcast I co-host, and the topic of home libraries came up. I found myself wondering, what did my home library really consist of? What were the ingredients of the library soup I thought I had? Because while I support initiatives like We Need Diverse Books, I wondered if I was walking the walk while I talked the talk.
So I decided to find out.
This is my daughter’s book collection.
I decided to collect them all together first, to assess the type of organization I’d need to do to see how I stacked up.
(I did not include middle-grade chapter books for the sake of the experiment and my arms.)
By the time I collected everything together, it was clear that the cobbler’s daughter wasn’t without shoes. But what kind of shoes was she wearing? That was what I needed to really assess. And that’s where things got embarrassing.
I broke down the books into the following categories:
- Books with animals
- Books with white/neurotypical/abled-appearance characters only
- Books with one diverse character
- Books with multiple diverse characters
- Books with diverse protagonist(s)
And, um. Here we go.
Firstly, there are a lot of animal-character books out there. Animal books clocked in at 59 out of 92 books counted. This is pretty understandable and not a bad thing in my eyes. Animals are accessible characters that kids can read into any way they want. They’re fanciful and require the use of imagination. I have no beef with Lowly Worm.
These are the books with all-white/non-diverse characters, as far as I could tell by flipping through them.1 I counted 21.
Yikes. This one, lone book is the one that features one diverse character. I wasn’t sure how to count the kid on the cover. Does being on the cover count? I decided it didn’t count, because who reads or focuses on the cover? Cover is not necessary content.2
That left five books with more than one diverse character.
The remaining four books had diverse protagonists. Rosa in Rosa-Too-Little is Hispanic-American and the book is sadly out of print.3 The Librarian of Basra is an Iraqi librarian who wears a hijab. Wave‘s protagonist could read as Korean but admittedly this is a stretch, as the illustrations are sparse and could be seen a number of ways. The Snowy Day‘s protagonist Peter is African American.
This is embarrassing. And yet, it’s so incredibly easy for it to happen.
So, what to do about it?
There are a lot of resources out there for me to find books that feature not just animals and not just white characters. I use the following resources in my job, and now I’m going to start using them for my home library, too:
- We Need Diverse Books
- Reading While White
- BookDragon: Books for the Multi-Culti Reader
- A Mighty Girl
Sometimes, it’s hard to listen to the talk you talk and look yourself in the eye to see if you’re walking the walk. But, it’s also eye-opening.
I thought I had a diverse collection for my daughter. Turns out, I didn’t. Book collections don’t come fully assembled the way we think they ought to. They are formed book by book, just like our lives are formed not all at once, but choice by choice. Annie Dillard once wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” How we form our bookshelves can be seen as an extension of that. I don’t want my daughter’s world to be homogenous.
And maybe we have enough animal books.
- You try rearranging the toddler’s book collection in a specific organized way without said toddler helping helpfully and you can forgive a book that may be wrongly categorized. ↩
- This stack’s numbers differ from the podcast slightly; I think I counted a library book or two in my initial pre-photo-essay assessment! But I think the point still stands that I brutally failed. ↩
- This is a huge bummer since it’s the book I attribute to my early fascination with the library. Rosa is too little to get a library card so she practices and practices and practices writing her name until she can do it, and then she’s big enough! Yay! ↩