Reading for change

As protests continue over systemic racism and the death of George Floyd, there has been a flurry of social media posts listing children’s books by diverse authors.

It can be easy to give these posts an eye-roll. What good can book lists do in the face of centuries of oppression?

Often, when we talk about children’s books with diverse characters, we talk about how important it is for all readers to see themselves and their lives reflected in the stories they read. I know I was always thrilled to find books with Asian protagonists, so I could share them with my Burmese-Canadian kids. I didn’t want Silence and Violence growing up feeling like books were only about white kids.

But books can do much, much more than reflect one’s own experiences. And books with diverse characters are not only for readers of colour. They’re for all of us.

First, because they keep us from repeating the mistakes of history. For a few years now, my daughter has been suggesting that schools replace their current eighth-grade English curriculum with The Hate You Give, Moxie, and Simon vs. the Homosapiens Agenda. (This would definitely be an improvement on The Red Pony, which is what I remember reading in high school.)

The police officers who are reacting so violently to protesters… would their reactions be different if they had spent eighth grade on a deep reading of The Hate You Give? One can certainly hope so.

The diverse books on our reading lists don’t all have to focus on big issues, either. They don’t have to be political. We should give our kids books about Black characters playing instruments, about Indigenous characters solving mysteries, about people of color falling in love for the first time.

Why?

Let me put on my science hat here.

Way back in 1954, a guy named Gordon Allport published The Nature of Prejudice. He made a suggestion: if people hang out together as equals, they discover they have things in common. They learn that everyone’s human. They grow less likely to stereotype. 

Researchers have since taken Gordon’s guess and turned it into science. First, they gave it a fancy name: the contact hypothesis. Next, they designed experiments to see if it was true. They did more than 200 studies in twenty-five countries. They probed the biases and reactions of 90,000 people. What they found: 94 percent of the time, contact between groups reduced prejudice.

But maybe you live in a tiny town, with a homogeneous population. Maybe your school isn’t diverse. Well, good news. Researchers at Canada’s McGill University found that reading books about friends who have different ethnicities can also help reduce prejudice.

So don’t roll your eyes at the reading lists. Instead, dive in. Here’s a list from The Conscious Kid, one from Munro’s Books in Victoria, one from Kidsbooks in Vancouver, and resources from Embrace Race. And there’s lots more information at We Need Diverse Books.

Reading won’t solve all the world’s problems. But it’s certainly a good place to start.

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