I’ve been spending a lot of time in libraries lately, picking up DVDs to enliven winter weekends or browsing new cookbooks, but mostly hanging out in the children’s section. Last summer I had a short library internship position, and my favorite part of it was what the library world calls “reader’s advisory,” which is really just a fancy term for book recommendations. It was such fun to guide a child or parent to the shelves to find a coveted book or watch them check out a huge stack of novels. One of the things I enjoy about handing over books across the checkout desk is connecting kids with characters who physically resemble them. A little secret smile appears on my face every time I give Anne of Green Gables to a girl with red hair, or one of the Harry Potter books to a boy with glasses. Growing up, stories for me were always that much more special when I could immediately find a point of connection (such as, “hey, we look alike!”) with my favorite characters.
Recently, however, I’ve become convicted of the fact that, while handing out those lookalike books is easy for me to do with kids resemble me—white kids from the suburbs—I don’t have the same skill with the majority of children who show up at the urban library I frequent on a regular basis. These kids are African American or Hispanic or multi-racial. We come from different socioeconomic backgrounds and sometimes we don’t even speak the same languages. I certainly want to give these kids good books, but I’m coming to realize that most of the books that I love and know and seek out to read feature white faces. I’d like that to change. I want to look at the wide variety of skin colors and nationalities represented at my library and be able to think of a book to hand each of those kids that stars someone like them. I absolutely believe that the inner lives of characters are important too, and that we can love and learn from stories with characters completely different from ourselves; but I also think there’s something powerful in holding a story and knowing that the character in it has a physical body that looks like yours, the one you live your daily life in.
So, this is one of my reading goals for 2015. If you’d like to join me, you’re more than welcome to. I’m going to read as many books featuring multicultural characters as I can, and when I find those good ones that I can cheer for and recommend, I’ll tell you about them. I’m particularly interested in contemporary fiction. There are lots of great books out there that tell important and true stories about racial conflicts or highlight a specific culture; there is absolutely a place for those, but I also want to find more plain ‘ol good tales, ones where a character’s physical appearance isn’t a plot point, but a part of their everyday adventurous life, just like the kids in my library. I’m including a short list of those stories below, that I’ve read and loved and would hand to anyone. I wish it were longer, and hopefully by this time next year, it will be.
Hold Fast by Blue Balliett
Boys of Blur by N.D. Wilson
Chasing Vermeer, The Wright 3, and The Calder Game by Blue Balliett
Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary D. Schmidt
Do you have any books that would fit in this list that you can recommend to me? I’d love to hear about them!