Saturday, October 14, 2017

Diversity in Children's Books - How Diverse is Our Book Drive Collection?


Our class has been working together for the last several weeks to bring a Little Free Library to our school. Kids have been busy creating designs and painting the little library. They have been creating posters and videos to advertise the book drive that we organized. As our book drive concluded, I wanted us to take some time as a class to think about the books that we had collected. 

During the prior week, while thinking about how I could guide my kids to make sense of the books that we collected, I talked with my sister-in-law, Roxanne, who works at The Children's Book Bank. She shared a post on the Lee & Low Books blog by Jessica Lifshitz, a fifth grade teacher in the Chicago area. Lefshitz wrote about how her students analyzed the diversity of their classroom library. This post was instrumental in guiding our inquiry into the diversity of our book drive collection.

Setting Up an Inquiry into the Diversity of Our Book Drive Collection

The morning after our book drive concluded, kids entered our room and were amazed at the tremendous number of books that we had collected. They took some time to peruse the pile. 

We then came together as a class and began talking about our collection and why having access to books is so important. I shared a statistic, which I had read on The Children's Book Bank website, that kids enter first grade with a remarkably wide gap in the number of hours that they have experienced one-on-one picture book reading -- from an average of only 25 hours to upwards of 1700 hours -- and that a key part of this is having access to books. Kids shared what an advantage being read to has on a child's learning and success in school. I said that our Little Free Library can be a way for more kids to have more access to books.

I shared some about how books are vital in helping people think about the world. I said that having a robust classroom library is important to me as teacher. However, the books that kids have access to in our library, while full of choice, are limited by what I have placed there as teacher. I said that I think it is important for us to think more about what and who is included in the books in this collection or in any collection. What kinds of books are we surrounding ourselves with? And who is represented in these books in terms of race and gender?

As Lifshitz suggested in her post, we then looked at an infographic from the Lee & Low Books blog, which shows the diversity gap in children's books. We talked about the term "people of color" and how language is important to the way we work to understand people, and that the language we use to describe one another changes over time. One kid said that the goal of the language in this term is to be inclusive, that this term goes beyond just saying African American to include more people. We talked about how challenging it can be for authors of color to get their work published. Kids brought up the role that publishers play in controlling who gets published and who is represented on book covers. We talked about the difference between white writers writing about people of color and writers of color doing the same. Kids said that it can be hard to stand in the shoes of a person of a race different from your own, that this can impact how real a book is, and can contribute to stereotyping by white authors. Next we turned to look at the books that we had collected during our book drive.

In our classroom we use a simple inquiry framework: ask a question, collect data, analyze data, and tell others. To connect our conversation about the diversity gap in children's literature to our book drive collection, I put forward the question, "How diverse is our book drive collection?" and the subquestion, "How are different races and genders represented?"

Collecting Our Data

To begin collecting our data, kids grabbed a stack of books and began recording each book's title, whether there were people on the cover, if those characters where white, and if the characters were boys using this data collection sheet from Lifshitz.

Analyzing Our Data

To begin analyzing our data, we entered everything that we collected into a Google Form.

As kids entered their data into the Google Form, the data populated this Google Sheet. Looking at our data organized in the spreadsheet, we talked as a team about what we noticed. These posters show that conversation.

During our conversation, kids talked about there being white characters on 79 percent of the book covers with people. They mentioned how many book covers had animals or other objects and that this was more than those featuring characters of color. During our data collection, one kid had noticed how a cover had about ten white characters on it. We wondered how hard this would be to change. Another kid brought up an action step that we could take. She said that when we stock and restock our Little Free Library that we should be intentional in the books that we are choosing, being sure to include a greater selection of books with diverse characters than is in our collection.

We concluded by talking about why thinking about the books that are in our Little Free Library collection matters and why the diversity represented within the books that we read ourselves matters. I shared this picture from a post on the Lee & Low Books blog by Katie Cunningham and talked some about Rudine Sims Bishop's terms "mirror books" and "window books." I said that kids who are white can easily find mirrors in books. The data that we found today supports that claim. Most children's books have white characters. Borrowing from Lifshitz, I said that we need books as windows to see into the lives of others and to develop our understanding of what it means to be a race other than white. I shared with them something that Cunningham wrote, that "when the lighting is just right, can't a window become a mirror?" I mentioned that reading aloud Christopher Paul Curtis's The Watsons Go To Birmingham last year is a great example of a book that can be both a mirror and a window. Kids agree that they could see themselves in the feelings and experiences of Kenny and the rest of the Watson family, and that the book also offered a window into understanding the segregated South during the Civil Rights Movement. We talked about how there were also mirrors and windows in another book read as a class last year, Alex Gino's George. I encouraged kids to take another action step with their own reading and to think more about how a book can be a mirror and a window when choosing their next book to read.


Later in the day, we sat down to complete some written reflection. Kids wrote...
  • Our Little Free Library just got books. I went through 53 books and only three were about people of color.
  • We need diverse books to teach children to step away from becoming a person with a very white perspective.
  • A diverse book is a picture into someone else’s world that gives us a chance to see what it would be like to be someone else.
  • If we could open our eyes and see what it would be to be someone else we would not need a lens (a book) to look through, but we will always need books.
  • Our society would crumble if we did not look through a window or a mirror to see what others see.
  • There are many books with animals as characters and stuff other than humans.
  • If you write a book about people of color, it's opening a crack. If you get it published, it is opening a window. And if people read it, it is opening up a door.
  • Diverse books are important because if books were not diverse, then one race would be included and that's not fair because we should all have equal rights.
  • If there was no diversity in books, we'd fall apart. People would be starved for new points of view.
  • The main thing we read about with people of color is the Civil Rights Movement with Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. We don't as often read books about a person of color's regular day.
  • Diverse books are important so we know what it is like to be in someone else's shoes.
  • Diversity should not only be here to help raise our future to care more and have more diverse opinions, but to change adults and people of every kind and point of view.
  • Books can help us come to realize that other races matter and help see things that we did not think about before.
  • Books should be more inclusive.
  • Books are like a window. Sometimes you can see yourself, but other times you can see right through so you can learn. We should read books that we can relate to and learn from.
  • I think that we should keep protesting. Sure we're civilized and we like following leaders, but that doesn't make it okay to go around with our mouths shut. Book are going to get worse if no one speaks their thinking.
  • My next step will be to read an equal amount of books with people of all races as characters.
  • My next step is to spread my thinking.


  1. This is an exceptional way to engage students in purposeful learning that has student agency at the center..!! Thank you, Mark!

    1. Thanks so much, Matt. I thought it was an important equity layer and capstone for this project.