On race and representation in kidslit…

I’ve ordered a couple reference books for my library lately on multicultural children’s literature, and in this particular case, I have got to stop ordering American titles without previewing the actual book first. Don’t get me wrong, they were both excellent books… for many American communities. The only thing is, I can’t always find a Canadian equivalent. Recent cover controversy and the surrounding discussion has also had me thinking about this.

The practical collection development problem with most of the bibliographies, awards and lists for cultural diversity is that the cultural make-up of your community affects what moves off the library shelf. You’d better believe there were different patterns in what moved and was hot when I was a) in a larger city at a branch library where ninety percent of the community was Asian, predominately Chinese, and had a high concentration of new immigrants, b) at a school library that drew kids from all over the city and c) in a public library in a mid-sized city where the population is predominately multi-generation European immigrant white Canadian, with a large minority of First Nations Blackfoot people, and a growing population of new immigrants and refugees.

The two largest sections of most of the American literature on multicultural kids’ lit are African American, then Hispanic–for obvious reasons, when you look at the population of our neighbour to the south. There are inevitably a number of books and resources on slavery and the struggle for civil rights in the sixties. I will order a few books on each of these subjects, but they are predominately written for an American audience about their own history which is not our history. A vast majority of books about the underground railroad end once the characters make it to Canada. Hardly any are about what happens once they get here. (Off the top of my head, there’s an Our Canadian Girl series, Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis, to a certain extent, a mixed fiction/nonfiction book by Barbara Greenwood, The Last Safe House, and maybe My Name is Henry Bibb?)

Most of the black families in my (prairie Canadian) community are recent immigrants from Africa, and a lot of them are refugees. Anything with a black protagonist, on the cover or not, that’s a) set in a particular, usually American, historical context or b) are about life in the inner city, are as foreign to them as the book with the white kid playing hockey on the front. (Of course, I can never have enough hockey books, but that’s a discussion for another time.)

I’m looking for books like One Hen or Planting The Trees Of Kenya or We All Went on Safari: A Counting Journey Through Tanzania, and even better, books like these written by people from the countries they’re about. When I was at the aforementioned school, I bought just about anything I could find with Chinese, Korean or Indian characters in it because those were the books many of the students were starved for. And then there’s a whole other dynamic with a lot of immigrant kids sometimes who want to be Canadian like most of their friends and classmates and  have nothing to do with where their family came from–but I think they should definitely have the option of reading books about kids who look like them. (I think all kids and families should have that option, but I’m opinionated like that.)

And regardless of the shifting cultural and ethnic inheritance of the kids in your community, I think that part of our responsibility in terms of what’s in our library collection is to give our kids access to materials that represent our world out there. I’m doing a disservice to the kids in our community if all they have access to is what sells best, what’s most popular, and what’s a safe and sure choice to buy. Their world is and should be more than just the loudest voice of the majority in so many ways. And really, I think it’s much more interesting that way.


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