The organization We Need Diverse Books advocates and educates about the importance of exposing children to diversity in children’s books. One of the defining moments of my life occurred twenty-nine years ago when I had a challenging experience related to this topic as a young children’s librarian. The following is my letter to the editor that was published in The Horn Book Magazine, September/October 1995, page 517:
In Hazel Rochman’s article “Against Borders” she eloquently describes her experiences growing up in South Africa. “The ‘public ‘library was for whites only. Most black writers were banned, banished, imprisoned. The apartheid government with its rigorous censorship was right about one thing: books matter. The stories you read can transform you because they help you imagine beyond yourself. If you only read what mirrors your view of yourself, you get locked in.”
Rochman’s words brought me back to an experience I had seven years ago when I battled against censorship in a small branch library in the northeastern United States. The book that launched the battle was To Hell with Dying (Harcourt) by Alice Walker, illustrated by Catherine Deeter. I learned about the book at my first book meeting with the other children’s librarians –three from the main branch and one from another branch. Each librarian sat at her place at the round table with a pile of books beside her and some notes she had made about them in front of her. We went around the table, and each librarian described and held up the books she had reviewed. The rest of us ordered or declined to order a particular book based upon each presentation (supplemented by reviews from journals). I sat at my place with big eyes and ears as each book was discussed.
“Let’s order a copy for Main.” “I’ll order a copy for my branch,” the other children’s librarian would say. “I’ll order a copy for my branch, too,” I’d say. Heads would nod, and check marks would be made.
Then a children’s librarian held up To Hell with Dying. I was drawn to the expressions of the faces on the cover. I heard “oohs” and “ahhhs” as the librarians admired the book. The reviewing children’s librarian flipped through the pages so that we could see the pictures. Everyone was struck by the power of this book.
“Let’s order two copies for the Main Library.” “I’ll order a copy for my branch!’, said the other children’s branch librarian. “And I’ll order a copy for my branch, too”, I said.
Nodding heads froze. Pens remained poised in the air. I looked around the table at shaking heads. They looked at me with great surprise and some pity, I thought, because I did not seem to understand.
“No—you can’t get it for your library”, someone explained. “Why not?” I asked. “Because”, said another patiently, somewhat condescendingly, “they don’t read books about black people at your branch.” Everyone nodded. I was shocked. A break was announced and people reached for the coffee. I excused myself and went to the bathroom where angry tears came to my eyes. As I looked into the mirror, I was filled with resolve to bring in books about minorities to my branch.
The rest of the meeting was a blur. I noticed that afterward, the librarians went over to a shelf and selected new books to read and review for the next book meeting. I chose every book with a minority character that I could get my hands on and took them all home. I read them eagerly. I discovered that we had very few books about minorities in our collection. The neighborhood was primarily white upper-class, and very few minorities came to the branch. All the more reason to have books with minorities represented, I thought.
Three weeks later at the next book meeting, armed with my pile of books and my notes, I spoke with certainty and authority about each book that I had reviewed, and when I believed a book was worthy to purchase, I spoke quickly. “I’m getting it for my branch,” I said. My head went down deliberately as I made a check mark with my pen, but other heads around the table didn’t move, watching me with disbelief. My decision to purchase books about minorities went unchallenged directly, although there was palpable discomfort when it became my turn to talk about the books on my pile.
I stayed at that library for over a year. My satisfaction upon seeing those shiny new books that featured black children, Latino children, Asian children, Native American children in my library was sweet. My satisfaction and joy upon seeing mostly white children and their parents take out these books again and again was sweeter still. I had launched a battle and won.
As Hazel Rochman noted, children need to be exposed to books that portray characters like themselves, but books must also be available that expose them to other people and other worlds—ethnic, racial, religious. Books can help make children more tolerant of others. Children can meet people in books that they wouldn’t tend to meet in their own neighborhoods. Children’s librarians have the opportunity and the responsibility to help this crucial process along. We must all be wary of censorship—under the guise of calling it selection.