Aspiring to Build Antiracist Children’s Library Collections

Welcome to Ask ALSC, where the Managing Youth Services Committee asks leaders in children’s libraries to share their response to an issue or situation.  We hope to showcase a range of responses to topics that may affect ALSC members. If you’d like to respond to today’s topics, or suggest a topic for the future, please leave a comment.

Over the past decade, diversity in children’s book publishing has expanded exponentially. Now, in 2023, it is clear to see that publishers have begun to value diversity, and most children’s librarians are on board. Organizations like We Need Diverse Books provide resources & programs to support diversity in the kidlit world. Representation is important for children of all backgrounds & identities, but it is time to move beyond representation in our collections and begin to work toward Antiracist children’s collections in our libraries.

I use the term Antiracist because because fighting against oppression of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) is extremely important and relevant. However, racism is not the only “ism” that we must be mindful of in our collections. The time has come to evaluate our collections through the lens of the whole umbrella of oppression – sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, fatphobia and fat shaming, classism, xenophobia , etc. Beyond adding diverse representation to our collections, children’s librarians must learn how to evaluate the quality of representation – both when selecting new materials and when weeding.

Not all representation is created equal. It is important to research the authors and illustrators of books we select. Are they a member of the group they are portraying in the book? In the past, publishers would often choose books by white authors, and when BIPOC authors proposed a similar book about their own culture or experience, publishers would say no- citing the book they had already published. One book about a race or cultural group was enough for them. The same scenario played out with cisgender, heterosexual authors writing about queer characters. Thankfully, this is no longer the case! However, publishers do release new books written by white authors alongside the higher quality books written by BIPOC authors, queer authors, authors with disabilities, etc. Researching will allow us to steer clear of the books with inauthentic (and sometimes harmful) representation. A great resource for books about indigenous people is the blog American Indians in Children’s Literature by Dr. Debbie Reese.

Take your community into account when selecting books. If you work in a library that serves a population that is 60% Black, then your collection should reflect that, with Black characters in a majority of fiction books, biographies about Black people, and Black authors throughout the collection. It’s important to portray the full range of experiences, and especially provide books that feature happy Black families alongside books about the more challenging topics, like slavery and discrimination. On the other hand, if your library users are mostly or almost exclusively white, it is still important to provide lots of books that feature diversity of all kinds. The best thing for contributing an antiracist future is for children to grow up experiencing diversity in real life, but if that’s not possible, books are a great alternative!

In addition to considering the quality of representation, we have to take the “isms” into account when weeding our collections for outdated & inaccurate materials. You may ask: Why? What about the historical or research value of those books? Or the teachable moment we can share with our kids? We are stewards of circulating children’s collections. Children use our collections every day, often without an adult to guide them. When a child picks up a book, they cannot necessarily tell whether a book is current, or an older book retained for historical value. The words and images they see will have an effect on them regardless. Imagine what it might feel like, as a child, to see an offensive caricature of your own racial or ethnic group in a book at your library. How about a word that was once common, but is now considered a racial slur, in reference to you and your family/community? Books that shame, demonize, or make fun of fat people, queer people, and people with disabilities are also harmful to children. Reading this kind of content leads to internalizing the negative messages about themselves. Books that include the kinds of harmful content described above are outdated in the same way that books listing Pluto as a planet (rather than a dwarf planet) are outdated. To further your understanding, read this article by critical race theorist Lindsay Perez Huber. If she can’t figure out how to turn a racist illustration into a teachable moment with her children, what makes us think the average parent or children’s librarian can do better?

There are newer books available that do a far superior job of teaching the lessons we seek within the story. For those patrons who are interested in teaching children about oppression and the “isms,” librarians can guide them toward books like Root Magic by Eden Royce or Strong as Fire, Fierce as Flame by Supriya Kelkar. Stories like these teach the historical lessons library users desire, from the point of view of the oppressed population, while also keeping children engaged without alienating them. Books like Starfish by Lisa Fipps and Different Kinds of Fruit by Kyle Lukoff teach children about fat phobia and transphobia, respectively. Instead of internalizing messages of hate, children will learn how to unravel the internalized hate from these stories.

The library where I work is a large, urban public library, and we have a Children’s Literature Research Collection (CLRC) within our Special Collections division. Any books that librarians believe may have historical or research value can be sent to the CLRC, where a curator can make an informed decision about the book’s research value and if/where it belongs within the research collection. Smaller libraries do not have an option like this, and will need to make a plan for how to handle books that may have historical or research value, but no longer fit within the parameters of their circulating children’s collection.

There is a lot more to say about antiracism in children’s literature and library collections. The above are only a few suggestions to get you started on doing this work. One more thing I learned recently is to consider self-published books. I used to dismiss them outright as lesser quality books. Then I learned about how authors from marginalized communities have not traditionally had access to the publishing industry. Now I think about self- published books differently, and I understand the need for some authors to self-publish, as well as the place their books have in our collections. Including self-published books can be a way to include hyper-local authors in our collections, particularly authors who look like the children we serve. We can follow up with programs featuring these authors, giving children the chance to meet an author from their own local community and get inspired!

Training is available to help library workers learn more about EDISJ (equity, diversity, inclusion, and social justice) as it relates to our work, including our collections. I encourage you to sign up for some of Library Journal & School Library Journal’s online courses on the topics of equity, diversity, and antiracism if you have the means. The LJ & SLJ course “Equity in Action: Building Diverse Collections,” really helped me expand my thinking about diversity in library collections.

Are you ready to start building an antiracist children’s collection? What steps have you already taken? Share your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below!

Today’s blog post was written by Becky Shaknovich, Administrative Librarian for West Philadelphia Libraries at the Free Library of Philadelphia in Philadelphia, PA on behalf of the ALSC Managing Children’s Services Committee. 

This post addresses the core competency of IV. Collection Knowledge and Management

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