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Say That To My Face: On Teaching and Learning Diverse Literature for Empowerment and Transformation (Or, On Feeling Itchy)

This post is excerpted from a Voices from the Middle article by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich.

 

The more books there are, especially books created by authors and illustrators of color, the more opportunities librarians, teachers, and parents and other adults have of finding outstanding books for young readers and listeners that reflect dimensions of their lives, and give a broader understanding of who we are as a nation.
—Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC)

 

“Where are you from?” is a question I’ve been asked all my life. “What are you?” is the less-polite version.

While there are many sarcastic answers that run through my mind, real answers do too. I’m a first-generation American. I’m Nigerian, I’m Jamaican, I’m a New Yorker. Most of all, I’m an amalgam of all of my reading and writing, I’m a story made up of all of the stories I’ve read and inhabited, and struggled with, and clung to. I’m a story I’m still writing, a complex one that grew up loving Julius Lester, Madeleine L’Engle, Romare Bearden, scary movies, afternoon tea, Charles Dickens, VC Andrews,  Afrobeat, Bach, George Michael, hard cheese, and hip-hop.

I didn’t always know all of the places that I was from until I encountered them in books. I think that we can and should be intentional about including diverse lit as a matter of course whenever we discuss lit in different genres, styles, and so forth. When a reader tells me he loves historical fiction, I might suggest Margarita Engle’s The Lightning Dreamer, YS Lee’s Agency series, or Rita Williams-Garcia’s Gaither Sister trilogy, and I talk about them as compelling historical fiction—great stories, first and foremost. Lovers of “family stories” might appreciate Coe Booth’s Kinda Like Brothers or Tanita Davis’s Peas and Carrots.

I think it’s vital that we are thoughtful about being inclusive in our recommendations. Too often the first things that come to mind are our old favorites—the ones we grew up with—or the books that get the most marketing and promotional support from publishers; in our libraries and classrooms, we have the opportunity to make diverse lit a regular part of those automatic recommendations and mentions, to inspire readers to find everyday inspiration in them.

We don’t want to reduce books to being only about the things that make them “diverse” (and that’s really an inadequate word for what we’re talking about here), but we can and should celebrate and promote the things that make a book special. If we promote diverse lit as being only “medicinal,” we can lose out. But if we focus on the “effects” of that good medicine—the joys, the reading pleasures, we can present all literature as vibrant, enjoyable, and relevant to all.

And yet.

 

While these narratives are often true and heart-warming in their way, this shock of recognition, I think, misses the major point of literature. Literature is a place for imagination and intellect, for stretching the boundaries of our own narrow lives, for contextualizing the facts of our nonfictions within constellations of understanding that we would not be able to experience from the ground, for bringing our dreams and fictions into detail, clarity, and focus. Books allow us a bird’s-eye view of our own lives, and especially how our lives relate to those lives around us.
—Christopher Myers, “Young Dreamers”

Sharing literature won’t always end up warm, snuggly, and celebratory, with the whole class two minutes from recreating a 1980s-era pleasantly bland unity exercise like “We Are the World” or “Hands across America” and that is OK.

We worry that our students aren’t ready or that they can’t handle it. It was not fun for sixth-grade me to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But I think it was even more uncomfortable for that librarian, and her discomfort is often the discomfort we really mean when we worry that a work of literature isn’t appropriate for our readers. It’s our discomfort as adults, the fear of not having answers and solutions.

We are afraid that we won’t know what to say, that we’ll uncover some ugly truths about our communities, about ourselves. Probably, we will. Sometimes we shouldn’t seek the commonalities, the things that make us alike. Sometimes literature can help us view difference, and difference is just as important. When you say you are color-blind, then you don’t see me. When you say that your experiences are exactly like mine or you know exactly what I mean, you are wrong, and you are erasing my experience.

We are different, and that is just as important as the ways in which we are alike. When we don’t talk about why a journal like Kirkus made the decision to identify characters’ race or other identity in its reviews and talk about when it works and when it seems clunky, we miss something important. Or why sharing Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark House series with a Little House lover is about more than just offering more of the same genre, we lose out.

When we pretend that our students aren’t saying that they disagree or that they don’t get it because slavery ended a long time ago so why should they be held responsible, we are missing out on opportunities to do the real, and yes, uncomfortable and unpredictable work of teaching and learning together.

 

Works Cited

Cooperative Children’s Book Center. Publishing statistics on children’s books about people of color and first/native nations and by people of color and first/native nations authors and illustrators. Retrieved from https://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/pcstats.asp.

Myers, C. (2013, August 6). Young dreamers. The horn book. Retrieved from https://www.hbook.com/2013/08/authors-illustrators/young-dreamers/

Read the full article, “Say That To My Face: On Teaching and Learning Diverse Literature for Empowerment and Transformation (Or, On Feeling Itchy),” in the March 2017 Voices from the Middle. 

 

Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich is the author of the middle grade novels Two Naomis, Naomis Too, and 8th Grade Superzero. She has contributed to several anthologies, and her work has appeared in Scholastic Instructor, American Baby, and Healthy Kids. She has taught at the Brooklyn New School, the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies, and Cornell Cooperative Extension. Rhuday-Perkovich lives in New York City with her family. Visit her website: https://olugbemisolabooks.com/