Getting More Woke Via a Diverse Books List

As an older white woman, I am constantly surprised how often my privilege—despite and because of it—reminds me that I am not as aware, as woke, as unbiased, as I would like to think I am. I spent half my life in a racially diverse area. I am the adoptive parent of 4 black children, now all adults. I have friends and family members who do not look like me, and from whom I constantly learn. I take classes! I read books! I go to marches! I have a “Black Lives Matter” sign in my yard!

All to say that the work of better understanding the role of race in our society is an ongoing, never ending, don’t-dare-think-you’re-done journey.

My most recent opportunity to live this was from volunteering to assemble a “Diverse Books” Amazon Wish List for my granddaughter’s school. My daughter Aselefech (adopted from Ethiopia in 1994) is the chair of the PTSA Racial Equity Committee (REC). Unlike many such committees, this one has mostly people of color on it—even a dad, which is rare in PTA circles. The white women on the committee have all stated their willingness to step aside if more people of color join. At this point, we have an active, energized group of about 10 people.

The REC decided to set up an Amazon Wish List for the school to provide more books about black kids and kids of color; I volunteered to coordinate with the librarian, who vets the books and adds suggestions based on what the kids have asked for, or on what holes need to be filled in the collection. The committee wanted more books for black kids that were not about slavery or sports. We wanted strong, engaging books about all kinds of kids doing all kinds of things.

The library already had quite a few books that fit the bill, including those from the Global Reading Challenge.

Here’s what’s transpired that helped me open my eyes and heart:

We decided that our list would be books that feature black/children of color. More intentionally, we also decided that the authors would also be black/people of color (poc). We felt that, as a committee using a racial justice lens, bringing more attention (and revenue) to authors of color should be our focus. So that was one bit of awareness: lots of books now feature black and brown kids in the illustrations, but many are written by white writers (mostly women, it seems, anecdotally) and we wanted to be more intentional about the authors.

The librarian asked for books about Muslim girls who wear the hijab. We recognize that many Muslims are white, but we decided to go ahead with recommending books, and found several by Muslim authors.

I have been struck, and I have more research to do, about how many books (picture books and chapter books) seem to be written about black girls/girls of color than about black, Asian, American Indian/Alaskan Native, and Latino boys. This is totally anecdotal on my part.

The librarian asked about books for/about transgender kids. I absolutely understand and support having these books in the school library, but told the librarian that the REC was focused on race, not on transgender issues, so we would not include them. Aselefech offered this to me: “While we focus on racial equity, I think it’d be okay for us to recommend books on transgender kids and the intersection of race.”

Ah. Yes. Of course. I adjusted my lenses and am now looking at books about black and other transgender kids written by black/poc authors.

Another area of Oh Yeah thinking came from a white friend of mine. Why not look into having a book fair of some sort sponsored by a local black/poc bookseller? Well, yes. Great idea. Will do.

For me, this has all been a great reminder of intent vs. impact, of the responsibility to be an ally, and of the need to be open about how much there always is to learn.

I love books. I love helping kids read and grow to love books themselves. I know that black kids and kids of color, along with black authors and authors of color, deserve more recognition and presence in literature. Yes, there has been progress. And yes, we still—I still—have a ways to go.

If you would like to see to see our list (and feel free to donate), you can find it here.

Final note: Some of the books we would have recommended are already in the library or in the school because of Seattle’s Global Reading Challenge.

And if anyone has suggestions, please feel free to share!

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