Re-thinking Representation: How to Deepen the Diversity Represented in your Class or Home Library
There is a lot of talk about representation in classrooms these days, but what does it really mean to have a classroom library that is truly diverse?
Too often, teachers and educators will grab a couple of well-known books about Black history and LGBTQ+ identities and leave it at that.
But does that really create a classroom that is truly representative?
While adding some diversity to your class or home library is a great start, it truly is just the beginning of building out representation with books.
There are a few steps to take to move towards a more inclusive home or classroom library.
Step 1: Survey your community
The first step to any representation must start with your community. True justice work is built together, so start by getting to know your community on a deeper level.
If you’re a teacher, this can be an actual survey you send home to find out what identities your students hold. (Want a free survey template for this? Grab ours here.)
If you’re building out a home library, this might be a conversation with your little ones about what identities they notice that are missing or limited in your library now.
Make a list of identities that come up, and prioritize filling your library with books that feature those characters and are written by those authors. So, for example, if you find out that some of your students are Muslim, and you don’t have any books written by or about Muslim individuals, you could focus on searching for books that represent those identities. If you find out your child is interested in learning about transgender identities, you would want to search for books representing transgender individuals.
Step 2: Identify other areas you’re missing
While starting with the identities represented in your community is important, true and deep representation must extend beyond the identities represented in your class or family. Make a list of identities that are missing or limited in your current library.
Here are a few identity categories you can start with:
Race and ethnicity
Gender and gender identity
Immigrants and refugees
Body shape and size
Abilities and disabilities
You may be surprised by what you find, but be completely honest about what identities are not represented. Everyone has areas that can be improved, so don’t worry if your library is less truly diverse than you thought it was. And if it’s even more diverse than you thought, that’s awesome! There are still always areas to improve, so read on…
Step 3: Explore if you have “about” or “included” stories
Representation in books can take many forms, and when doing a deeper dive, many people realize they only have books “about” a community. What does this mean? It means, for example, your only books that include people of color are books about race (or civil rights). It might be that your only books that feature disabled characters are books about being disabled (or about being LGBTQ+, or about being an immigrant).
While “about” stories are great for kids to learn about social justice, consider what message your story time is sending to kids if the only books they see that include LGBTQ+ individuals are those about fighting for rights, or fighting against bullying, or otherwise protecting and defending their basic identity. Kids may start to think that the only meaningful experiences and identities that LGBTQ+ individuals hold are, well, being LGBTQ+.
Identify areas where you have books about but not simply including characters of a certain identity group. Maybe you have lots of books featuring characters of different races, but your only books featuring Muslim or Jewish characters are about religious diversity. Or maybe you find that your library is full of books about race, but the books that aren’t about race are featuring primarily white characters.
Remember, we all start somewhere, so there is never any shame in noticing where we need to improve. Make a list of areas where you have “about” but not “included” identities.
Step 4: Dive deeper within categories
Once you’ve determined that each category is represented, take a deeper dive into different categories. For example, when you looked at the category of “racial diversity,” did you consider Black, Latinx, Asian and Pacific Islander, and Indigenous communities separately? Maybe you have great representation of Latinx communities but you’re missing Indigenous representation. Do you have lots of books featuring people with physical disabilities but none representing neurodiversity?
In addition to diving deeper within each category, you can also consider intersectionality - or how different categories intersect to form distinct experiences. For example, are your books that include immigrants and refugees featuring primarily white immigrants and refugees? Do your books that include LGBTQ+ families feature primarily male characters? Do you have books that feature people of color with disabilities?
There are endless categories to explore here, and the goal is not to have every single potential individual represented. Rather, the goal is to widen the representation as much as possible, so your little ones see as much diversity as possible.
Step 5: Go beyond the library
This is an article about library diversity, but it’s also so important to remember that diversity must extend beyond the library. True diversity has to be present through everything: the art on your walls, the conversations you have, the lessons you teach. Use your library as a starting point, but bring this diversity lens to everything that you do. What can you bring more representation into your home or classroom?
Taking the next step
Whew, that was a lot. If you went through each step and took some notes, you should have endless categories to add to the list to move towards greater representation in your library. As you can see, true representation goes much deeper than throwing in a few books about race and gender.
Remember, this is a starting point, and it may take some time to build out a library that is rich in diversity. Take it one step at a time and one book at a time. Over time, you’ll build out a library that represents people and cultures from all backgrounds and walks of life, and your little ones will have deeper and richer reading experiences.
Remember, this isn’t an exhaustive list - there are always more ways to deepen representation. But as with all justice work, use this as a starting point, because the work is never done.
Want to jump start your diverse library and build a more inclusive classroom? Join the Little Justice Leaders free mini-course for educators here.
You can also find curated book lists by the Madison Reading Project here.
Shelby Kretz is an educational researcher at UCLA and creator of Little Justice Leaders learning kit. Little Justice Leaders is a monthly kit for parents and teachers of elementary school students, which provides resources each month to learn about a new topic of social justice. Get our starter guide for talking to kids about social justice at newsletter.littlejusticeleaders.com.