Selecting books for programs is an essential part of a librarian’s job, but how do we do it with inclusivity in mind? We all have those books from our childhood that hold a special place in our hearts, but are those books we want to read in storytime? Should we put those titles on displays or booklists? There are so many new books being published, it can be a bit overwhelming sifting through everything to find the good stuff rather than choosing our favorite go-to classics.
When I think of selecting books for programs, I always think about Rudine Sims Bishop’s essay Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors. When a child reads a book about a person who looks or lives like them, they are reading a mirror–they are able to see themselves reflected in the book they are reading. When a child reads about someone who looks or lives differently than them, then they are reading a window because they are able to look into someone else’s life; something that is equally important because reading about people who are different from us helps teach us empathy. When a book is both a window and a mirror to a child, it becomes a sliding glass door.
When I select books, I specifically think about this quote from Bishop’s essay: “When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part.” As an actively anti-racist librarian who believes in equity and wants EVERY child at the library to feel welcome, I urge new library workers to do the extra work to find the good stuff. Leave the classics behind!
Imagine being a child picking up a book written by a problematic author or a book that features negative depictions of their culture or life. Will they feel welcomed when they see a book that negatively depicts their personal lives celebrated on a book list, display or read in storytime? Dr. Seuss, Little House on The Prairie, and Harry Potter are already so popular, they don’t need to be celebrated in our libraries when it means BIPOC and LGBTQ+ children may see themselves reflected in a harmful and disrespectful way.
I want books that celebrate diversity, books that make children feel good about themselves, and books that inspire love and laughter and light. I want children to see themselves reflected positively in books because I want them to know that they are worthy of existing in a world that might not always show that to them. It might take extra time to find these books, but the time is worth it when it means I can make a child smile.
Here’s my to-do list for when I’m selecting books for programs, displays, and booklists:
- Read reviews from trusted and general sources
- Read professional reviews. If you’re looking for a good place to start, try Social Justice Books!
- Read one star reviews on Goodreads, and other sites where the books can be purchased. The one star reviews are another great way to find out what others didn’t like about it.
- Read reviews from people who live the lives of the characters being depicted. One of my favorite blogs is American Indians in Children’s Literature by Dr. Debbie Reese. Be sure to check it out!
- If I’m planning storytimes:
- Place all the books on hold (I will admit, this has made my desk a bit messy at times).
- Read the books multiple times.
- If I really like them, I’ll also read them to my coworkers! Having more than one staff member take a critical look at a book helps me to identify things I may not have noticed due to my own personal biases. It also helps me practice reading it out loud.
- Don’t forget to check the illustrations! Harmful stereotypes can be found anywhere, and we have a responsibility to make sure we aren’t perpetuating them in any way.
- Create a list of titles and authors that you don’t want to highlight. It’s easy to forget when we have so many books to choose from!
- Be open to learning and admit to your own mistakes. We’re all human and will mess up sometimes. Intentionality will help us make less mistakes, but the important thing is that we learn from them and try to do better next time.
What are some of the things you do to ensure your library is a welcoming and inclusive place, especially for underserved children and their caregivers? What are you doing to celebrate diversity? Please share your thoughts, experiences, and ideas with us in the comments below!
Erika Miller is a 2016 Spectrum Scholar, a 2020 ALSC Equity Fellow, and a Children’s Services Librarian at the Lake City branch of the Seattle Public Library. She is passionate about helping others and learning how to create positive changes for the kids in her community.
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