Do you remember the first time you felt “seen” by a character in a book you read? The joy you felt in the moment that you connected with a character because of a shared experience, feeling, or identity?
Kids develop both a sense of confidence and a love of reading when they can identify with the characters and stories they read. Yet students from underrepresented communities — students of color, immigrants or refugees, students with special needs, or LGBTQ+ students, for example — are often underrepresented in their classroom libraries, too. Books with diverse characters also offer windows into the lives of others, helping students develop empathy and other vital social-emotional skills.
A few things to consider when building a more inclusive library:
Engage your students in selecting new books. Ask them about the stories they’d like to hear, or the books you already have that resonate most. Show them that their story (and opinions!) matter.
Seek out “own voices” authors — authors who are themselves a part of the communities and identities they write about.
Look to the families and community around your school. What do your students’ families celebrate? What are some of the community’s challenges? What books reflect these topics and might resonate with your students’ life experiences?
Consider graphic novels with diverse characters as a gateway for struggling or uninterested readers.
Expose your students to characters and stories they might not see in their own communities. If your students are less likely to encounter someone who’s different from them, offer them books that help them relate to people with other identities.
Julie Stivers, the librarian at Mt. Vernon Middle School in North Carolina, decided to revamp her entire library, and engaged her students in creating guides for other school librarians seeking to create diverse, inclusive libraries.
She sets an intentional goal for herself when it comes to ensuring her students can see themselves in her library: “Our school is about 80 percent students of color, and my goal is to have 80 percent of books on the shelves that feature a main character of color.”
Here’s how Julie went about updating her library, and some of the young adult books that have become instant hits for her middle school students.