Diversity Within The Pages of the Westside Children’s Library- Cynthia Westby, Director of Religious Exploration

On Sunday, May 21st Westside held a service with guest speaker Dr. Jabali Stewart called “We Will Keep Moving Together.” He explored the painful reality of white supremacy culture in America with music and story, looking at our cultural assumptions from a place of curiosity and solution. As part of that service, our story for all ages was about an 11 year old black girl named Marley Dias who loved getting lost in a book but wanted books where black girls were the main character. When she didn’t find those books at her school or in her library, she started looking for and collecting books where the main character was a black girl. She is a real girl! More about her tenacious work to create a list of books with a black girl as the main character (now over 9000 books) can be found at http://grassrootscommunityfoundation.org/1000-black-girl-books-resource-guide/.

After the story for all ages, the second through fifth graders attended a Teach-In workshop with me in Westside’s library. We followed up on Marley Dias’ story by learning more about our different identities and diversity. We watched a video, “Sometimes You Are A Caterpillar,” which beautifully illustrates not seeing beyond our own experience to notice another’s reality. Perhaps, like the caterpillar, we will say something offensive or insensitive and not realize it – even when the reality is staring us in the face. We talked about what matters is how you deal with this – directly, honestly, open to learning and changing your actions like the snail does in this story. We explored the idea of being a church, a people, who can respond, change, learn and grow to notice all identities and respect them all. You can view this video at: http://www.google.com/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=sometimes+you+are+a+caterpillar&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8.

Before analyzing some of the books in our library we talked about our identities, including: age, skin color, being a family member (daughter, son, brother, sister, niece), gender, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, and any other identities they could think of. We also talked about some ways that all humans are the same, like: our emotions, our needs for water, air, food, shelter, having family and friends, wanting and needing love and care.

With diversity and different identities in mind the children began to pull children’s books off the shelves in our library to look for whether they are diverse in the identities of the characters in the book. They looked to see if the characters in the book were “All White,” “All People of Color,” “Mix of Colors,” or “Other Identities.” Other identities include a lot of people(!) including people with different genders, sexual orientations, kinds of families and other identities. Because the children weren’t actually reading the books but going by pictures in the books many books that might have fallen into the “Other” category went into one of the other three piles. The children created stacks of books for each of the four categories. There are a large number of books in our library solely about animals and those books were set aside and not included in the counts.

As the children examined the books to determine which category they belonged in, there were lots of questions and lots of distractions as children became engrossed in a particular story (who doesn’t love a great story!). Contemplating the subtle and overt messages of a story they read or hear in books, movies, etc. to ask, “Who is represented?” “Who are the main characters I see and what are their identities?” “Am I reading and hearing about diverse identities?” “Why does this matter?” All these questions took hold or planted seeds in their minds. These are vital messages and lessons for all of us.

Here is what we discovered in a half hour exploration of Westside’s children’s books. We pulled down about 10% of the children’s books from the shelves. The children created a stack about 2 feet high of books whose characters were a “Mix of Colors.” We had equal 8 inch high stacks of books whose characters were either “All People of Color” or “All White.” We found about 4 books whose main characters would fall into the category of “Other identities” like people with disabilities, transgender and sexual orientation, and different kinds of families. Though it is important to remember the children weren’t reading the stories so these identities could easily have been missed.

I asked the children, would Marley Dias feel Westside has a good library? Would she be happy or disappointed if she saw our books? We had a lively conversation about this. In this quick browse through a small portion of our children’s books the most glaring possible imbalance is in the number of books with main characters whose identities would fall into this huge category of “other” in the lesson plan. We will want to keep this in mind as we buy new books or accept donations. This week I bought new seven books for the library that fall into this category of “Other Identities.” As primarily a resource for the Story Time class and the storytellers of “Stories for all Ages,” it is important that our library reflects a diversity of identities. If you have books in good condition that your children no longer read, that would help expand our library’s diversity, we’d love to have them. You can contact me if you have any questions or donations!

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