In March, I did a post about "Where are the diverse books?" For the past several weeks, I have been mulling over another aspect of diverse books? How do you determine if a book is culturally appropriate and free of stereotypes? Recently, I picked up a book that appeared to be a perfect match for the #Road2Reading Challenge. It was written by an author of color. The book featured a family living in another country. However, as I read through the first couple of chapters, I realized I was uncomfortable with the portrayal of the main character. I put the book down because I needed to think about it. Shortly after this experience, I read another book where the main character had a learning disability. Again, a title that could have been a nice match for the #Road2Reading Challenge, but once again, I had to stop and think about it. Please note that I am being intentionally vague about the books because I am not here to trash books. I do think that the questions that I am raising are good ones and ones that educators and librarians need to wrestle with.
Typically, when I think about diverse books, I focus on whether that book is free of stereotypes and portrays characters of color or from diverse backgrounds or with special needs in an accurate and positive manner. However, I struggle when a book may portray something accurately but not in a positive manner. For example, is it ever okay to use the word "retard" in reference to a character with cognitive challenges? Where do I draw the line? What is acceptable? And as a teacher or librarian, when does it become censorship? If the character who uses a negative or stereotypical word in reference to another character but learns that this is not acceptable and changes his/her behavior, can I then keep it in my classroom library?
In a book set in another country, if the author includes language and behavior that is seen as acceptable in that country but maybe not in the majority of schools within this country, is this okay? One of the issues in the first book I referenced was the fact that they family had a tendency to refer in very negative ways to the main character's weight. The way that it was written bothered me. It did not come across as a term of endearment but more as fat shaming. However, I do know that in the country where the book was set did have a different attitude about a person's weight than we do. Again, what is acceptable and who gets to draw the line? If a book is written by a character with a disability and s/he portrays the character with a disability in an extremely humorous light is this okay because of the author's personal experiences? Or because the audience may not be able to understand how it may be okay for the individual with special needs to make fun of himself/herself but not for others to do it that we keep the book out of our classroom collections?
I do not have any definite answers. However, I would love to hear what you have to say on this topic? What guidelines do you use? Where do you draw the line?
Some resources to check out:
Guide for Selecting Anti-Bias Children's Books by Louise Derman-Sparks, Anti-Bias Educator & Retired Professor
Seven Ways to Evaluate Multicultural Literature from the University of North Carolina
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that you may use with readers at the start of their reading journey.
Join in the conversation at #road2reading.
Each week, Michele Knott and I post about new early readers and transitional chapter books. Don't forget to pop over to Michele's blog to check out her post as well.