What was your favorite book as a child? Better yet, why was it your favorite? It likely resonated with you in a special way, was relevant to your individual life. That’s often why books become favorites. Unfortunately, many kids have to find those books outside of school, in libraries or bookstores, rather than in their own classrooms.
With the prominent role that technology has in education today, you might think that books have literally been put back on the shelves. That would explain why so many kids don’t find favorites in school. Yet that’s not the case. Books still abound. Even traditional textbooks are still used in many classrooms despite the increase in digital versions. What’s more, literature is still primarily read from real books, whether they are picture books in kindergarten or great literary works in high school. Still, many students never find a book that speaks directly to them.
The reason may well be in your own classroom library. Many students never see themselves reflected in those books. With white protagonists so often the standard and males the heroes, students of color and girls are left out. Yet, if these were just a few among an array of diverse books, there would be no issue. However, the impact as well as the implications are far reaching when such books are the norm:
- Reinforces stereotypes – When white males are always the heroes in books, it advances the stereotype that girls and students of color aren’t capable of that role. This is detrimental to all students, as they all need to see girls and students of color in leadership roles.
- Implies a level of inferiority – Similar to the negative impact of stereotypes, when students don’t see themselves reflected in books, the implication is that they are not worthy. Therefore, classroom libraries without a variety of students of color and a melange of cultures effectively deem them not noteworthy. Not only do the omitted students feel the sting of rejection and inferiority, but that viewpoint is adopted by other students toward them as well.
- Denies students characters with whom they can identify – Lacking characters of the same race, ethnicity, language, culture or any other similarity leaves students without a character with whom they identify. This is particularly problematic when the book is read to the entire class in younger grades or assigned reading for older students. In such instances, the characters remain remote, their lives theoretical. While emotions and even some life experiences are universal, being able to identify with the characters makes literature more accessible to readers.
- Limits students’ view of their options – Books, like movies and television shows, offer readers a view of potential choices. While students’ daily lives might not encompass certain careers, travels or artistry, books offer vicarious experiences. Reading of characters or real people depicted as lawyers, world travelers or ballet dancers, for instance, broadens students’ view of their own options. Of course, the reverse limits their view.
Education should both reflect who students are and broaden their definitions of who they can be. Diverse literature does both. That’s why the books in your classroom library matter. It’s also why they should encompass all that your students are, honoring and respecting them while also introducing them to one another. That’s just part of educating the whole child.