I’ve been thinking a lot about representation recently. As a mixed-race child, I related to the characters in the books I read through experiences and emotions. I loved how The Brain outsmarted everyone and marveled at Cam Jansen’s photographic memory. Reading was a learning experience (history, culture, geography), increasing my knowledge while at the same time helping me learn to understand and empathize with others.
The #OwnVoices movement didn’t exist 30 years ago and it wasn’t something I thought about as a child. My mother was adamant that I read “good” books that were “well-written.” This meant reading Judy Blume and Mildred D. Taylor, but not being allowed to read the Babysitters’ Club or Sweet Valley High. I never noticed that the authors of my book list were overwhelmingly white. It seemed to match the overwhelmingly white town I lived in and the mostly white actors I saw on TV every afternoon.
I loved, and still, love, a good story. And when the story was about someone different from my setting, I saw it as making a new friend and learning about them. Because many of my favorite writers were writing about people different than themselves (John Steinbeck, Pearl S. Buck, Jack London), I did not feel relegated to a white-only world.
However, my feelings about representation changed once I had a daughter, a multicultural child, whose background includes Mexican and indigenous. As I’ve written and said many times, I wrote my first picture book, Jamie is Jamie: A Book About Being Yourself and Playing Your Own Way because my kid didn’t see herself represented in a book and had a difficult time with gender stereotypes as a preschooler.
Now that my daughter is elementary school age, representation has taken on new importance beyond gender. Now she is more aware of race. We have definitely enjoyed many Roald Dahl, Judy Blume, and Beverly Cleary books–our lives would be lacking without Fudge and Ramona’s antics. And Junie B’s misunderstandings do make us laugh.
My mother goes to great lengths to fill my kid’s bookshelves with “the classics” for her age and we do enjoy reading them. However, when the latest box set of Judy Moody appeared, I had to pause for thought. My child’s home library is overwhelmingly white at a time when it doesn’t have to be.
I also started to think about how little the canon of 2nd – 4th-grade books has changed and how damaging some would be to my child. The Little House on the Prairie has been highlighted for its mistreatment of Native Americans. What about The Indian in the Cupboard?
There are some amazing bookstores that go out of their way to carry #OwnVoices authors. I asked for all 2nd and 3rd-grade books they had with Latinx characters, preferably of Mexican descent and a major plus if the book even took place in Mexico. I quickly received a pile of 5-6 books. That’s how we found Love, Sugar, Magic by Anna Meriano.
As I started to read aloud Chapter 1, my daughter reacted in a way I had never seen before. Her face lit up and she beamed, “They speak Spanish like me! And they are Mexican!”
The notes of recognition that she shared as we advanced through the book were heartwarming. The types of bread and desserts, the traditions such as Day of the Dead are all things she has intimate knowledge of. Reading a book to my daughter where she could be standing in the kitchen with this family, and she would fit in perfectly is really amazing. I never had that experience, but it’s definitely our responsibility as adults to provide that for the kids in our lives.
As reading teachers, we teach our students to make self-to-text connections. But how can they really if they never read a text related to them? Representation matters. It cannot be said enough. And it’s something we need to have in the forefronts of our minds when buying diverse picture books for the little ones in our lives.
Follow the #OWNVOICES and #READYOURWORLD hashtags on social media to discover more amazing diverse books for kids!
Afsaneh has been teaching for over 15 years from preschool to graduate school, and is often invited to give teacher training workshops and speak at educational conferences. Her vast experience in working with different ages, academic levels, and cultures has given her the ability to work with anyone and help them achieve their learning goals. She is also the author of Jamie is Jamie.