Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Sheer Geography of Your Bones: Thinking About Diverse Books & the Power to Heal

We Need Answers (M.A Reilly, Collage #85 from Collage Journal, 2014)

“Or perhaps it is that time doesn’t heal wounds at all, perhaps that is the biggest lie of them all, and instead what happens is that each wound penetrates the body deeper and deeper until one day you find that the sheer geography of your bones—the angle of your head, the jutting of your hips, the sharpness of your shoulders, as well as the luster of your eyes, the texture of your skin, the openness of your smile—has collapsed under the weight of your griefs.” ― Thrity Umrigar, The Space Between Us


For the last week it's been encouraging to see teachers and administrators making commitments to be open to and/or take the lead in discussing with (not at) students about what is happening in Ferguson, MO specifically and maters of race, race relations, and economic justice generally. These are, of course, very important conversations to have. Some suggestions/guidelines about how to discuss race and race relations can be found here, here, here. Some posts by educators that specifically explore discussion with students about institutional racism and the murder of Mike Brown can be found here, here, here.

In thinking about these potential conversations, I also recognized that meaning is ascribed by what we do and don't do, it is not given. So it's not the discussion about race, race relations, or the one about Mike Brown that you hold in class or school that most matters, but rather it's how you and I live inside classrooms and schools each day and the dignity through action that we afford others. In this post I want to advocate for an often overlooked method that can help us to better ensure broad representation in the classroom/school.


As some may have noticed I post often about diverse books. I am deeply committed to issues of representation via the texts we select and fail to select in classrooms. Text selection is no small matter. It's why during chats, such as #TitleTalk, #engchat, #Litchat and others--I have the tendency to tweet about diverse texts.  The plethora of book recommendations I see most often in twitter chats, in professional education books, and on book shelves in classrooms reflect the people teaching who are most often white, middle class women. The stories that get passed along closely reflect what is known by this majority.

I understand how this happens. The familiar is comfortable because it is known and if you're part of the group that is overly represented, then matters of representation may feel less urgent, less noticeable. But as adults we can see past our own particulars to see other.  For there is a failure when only some children get to see themselves in the texts they compose as readers and writers across 13 years of school, while others are sorely absent. We communicate worth and the absence of worth by the books and texts we privilege. Talk all we want in the aftermath of a murder, but the day to day work in or classrooms and schools shows what we value far more than our talk on a given day might do.

In 2012, Kate Hart blogged about representation on YA book covers in Uncovering YA Covers in 2011. 90% of the covers of YA books published in 2011 featured white girls (and 20% of those did not include the entire girl).  

from here

How Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, David Ritcheson, Jordan Davis, James Byrd, Jr., Stephen Lawrence, Christopher Newsome, and Matthew Shepard were seen and not seen by self and peers throughout 13 years of classroom experiences may well have influenced why they were beaten, raped, sodomized, and/or murdered. Our capacity to see and name other as beautiful is faulty, distorted, and often missing when our vista of potential people is full of wholes. I can't help but recall my son's first week of public school. On the third day he came home and asked if he could wear his red winter coat. As it was September and he was 6, I asked why. He told me he wanted to zip his coat up over his face so that the big boys on the bus wouldn't call him angry names, like Chink. The white boys on the bus thought my son was Chinese as I suppose "all Asians look alike."  The boys found it permissible (as did some of their parents) to bully a young child because he looked different than they did. Throughout elementary and middle school, there were few if any books that my son encountered at school that featured Korean boys. A woman down the street once told me, "Well it's almost like he's white."

We must do better.

In Ellen Oh's post, Why The Pretty White Girl YA Book Cover Trend Needs to End, she writes:

Asians have long been the silent minority in this country. It's gotten so bad that when someone makes a racist remark toward Asians, they just shrug it off and make it seem like you're the one making a big deal about nothing. Or they think it's funny. Like a couple of white guys who think they are being clever by opening up a restaurant called "Roundeye Noodle shop" in Philadelphia. And then they are surprised when people get offended? The roots of that racist remark stem from Asians being called slanty-eyed chinks.  If anyone thinks "Roundeye" is not racist, you should come explain that to my youngest daughter who had the singular pleasure of being told by two boys in her class that her "small Chinese eyes" were ugly compared to her friend's "blue round-eyes." She was in kindergarten and only 5 years old. She cried for days. Words can scar you for life.

Ellen Oh is correct. Words can scar. And we know all too well when we think of Mike Brown that bullets can kill. Our vision of what is valued and beautiful remains distorted by absence--be it racial, economic, gender, sexual orientation, and/or religious.  We can bridge these differences in small, consistent ways in our classrooms--ways that can culminate into powerful narratives about beauty and worth. We must begin by being mindful of what texts we produce and consume at school, what texts we purchase, and who has the agency to do so.


So I urge you to reconsider reading aloud yet another Cynthia Rylant book or pressing into the hands of your students copies of text exemplars from the CCSS which largely privilege whiteness and wealth.  In “Laying Bare of Questions Which Have Been Hidden by Answers”: The English Language Arts Standards of the Common Core, K-5, which Jane Gangi and I authored, we write:
When we leave out children of color and the poor, in addition to reducing their ability to make the connections they need to make to become proficient readers, we are telling them they do not matter. The CCSS ELA standards’ text exemplars privilege class. Less than 7% of the exemplars represent working class people and the poor—at a time when the majority of children are working class or poor (Gangi, 2010); the Annie E. Casey foundation (2011) finds that 22% of children in America are poor. This translates to about 16.5 million children, with poverty being defined as a family of four living on less than $22,000 a year. 

We can do better. We can be more inclusive in our classrooms and schools and in doing so broaden our rather narrow beliefs about worth, beauty, difference, and love.

IV. A Few Resources

I'd recommend you follow the blog: We Need Diverse Books.


Here's a modest list of recommended book publishers whose books are beautiful, aesthetic, inclusive, and enjoyable. Groundwood Books and Lee & Low Books are my go to book publishers for a long time.

  1. Annick Press
  2. Arte Público Press and Piñata Books
  3. Boyds Mills Press
  4. Chronicle Books
  5. Cinco Puntos Press
  6. Enchanted Lion Book
  7. Fitzhenry & Whiteside
  8. Front Street (part of Boyds Mills Press)
  9. Groundwood Books
  10. Just World Books
  11. Kids Can Press
  12. Lee & Low Books
  13. Orca Book Publishers
  14. Shen Books
  15. Tara Books
  16. Tilbury House
  17. Tradewind Books
  18. Tu Books (part of Lee & Low Books)
  19. Tundra Books
  20. Wings Press

A Few Influential Articles/Posts
  1. Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors - Rudine Sims Bishop
  2. Paul Laurence Who? Invisibility andMisrepresentation in Children's Literature and
  3. Language Arts Textbooks  -Mary Jackson Scroggins & Jane Gangi
  4. African American Literature: Books to Stoke Dreams - Jane Gangi & Aimee Ferguson
  5. The All-White World of Children's Books - Nancy Larrick
  6. The Importance of  Diversity in Library Programs and Material Collections for Children - ALA
  7. Why Hasn’t the Number of Multicultural Books Increased In Eighteen Years? (Lee & Low Blog)
  8. Recommendations for YA Blogs & Literature - Kate Hart

External Posts Recommending Diverse Literature
CRAJ: Children's Literature Resources - Global/International Literature and Diverse Perspectives (Jane Gangi)

Here are a 30 blog posts where I recommend books.

  1. 250+ Children's Books Featuring Black Boys and Men
  2. Raising Activists: 100+ Books to Read in K-12
  3. Children's Books Focusing on Special/Exceptional Needs, Strengths and Graces
  4. Children's Books about the Middle East
  5. K-3 Global Multicultural Poetry for Shared, Choral, Paired, & Echo Reading
  6. Global Multicultural K-8 Books Celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and His Legacy
  7. New Global Picture Books
  8. 97 Page Book of Primary Grade Comprehension Lessons With an Emphasis on Multicultural Books
  9. Forget the Stop Watch and Tune into Literature: Recommended Global Multicultural Texts for Developing Fluency (and a Love for Reading)
  10. Global Multicultural Books for Comprehension Instruction in Kindergarten
  11. Poetry Books for Grades 3-5
  12. Global Books for the First Grade
  13. Sensational Second Grade Books
  14. Global Multicultural Picture Books: Teaching Reading Comprehension in Grade 3
  15. Global Books for Grade 4
  16. Fabulous Global Books for Fifth Grade
  17. Books for Grade 7
  18. Books to Teach Writer's Craft with in Middle School
  19. Global, Multicultural Poetry Texts (Print and NonPrint) for Grades 7 - 12
  20. Reading Memoir in Grades 8-12
  21. Recommended Nonfiction for Middle School Learners
  22. Exploring LGBT Books for Children & Teens
  23. Cultural Characters: Or Why My Color Doesn't Wash Off -  Book & Instruction Suggestions
  24. 30 Children's Books about Standing Up and Making Change
  25. Latino/a Books for Elementary Children, Part I
  26. Latino/a Books for Elementary Children, Part II
  27. Latino/a Books for Elementary Children, Part III
  28. Books about Labor and Unions for 4th -12th Graders
  29. Selecting Read Aloud Books in K-5
  30. Updated 2014 Global Back to School Books

A Few Posts about Representation

  1. Troubling the Narratives
  2. Guest Blog: Children of Color and the Poor Left Way Behind in the National Governors Association and State Education Chiefs Common Core State Standards Initiative: “Text Exemplars” for Kindergarten through 5th Grade
  3. White Privilege, Classroom Discourse, and Being Other

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