That book was eye-opening to me. I had been raised on a steady diet of books about kids on farms, or on the American frontier. Laura Ingalls, Anne Shirley, and Fern Arable were the girls I read about every night. I wanted to live like them, and be like them, without realizing that I was a lot like them. I didn't travel across the country in a covered wagon, but I was white, and Christian, with a family that loved me, growing up in what to me seemed to be the most normal American town. It never even occurred to me that there were others living normal American lives that looked nothing like mine. A Jewish family in Brooklyn, living in an apartment building with shared bathrooms was as different from how I was raised as anything I could imagine. Narnia seemed more real to my limited experience than those children did.
All of this is to say that the push for more diversity in children's literature is the best thing we could be doing for kids these days. Just as I had Laura, and Anne, and Fern, every girl and boy should be able to walk into a library and find a large selection of books about children like them. They should see themselves in characters, and feel like they have found someone they can completely understand. They should know there are authors out there who get what they are going through, and who are writing about their experiences. Every reader deserves that no matter what their age, religion, race, gender, or sexuality. For reluctant readers, it is even more important that they can find books they can identify with and fall into.
Last year the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, published a report The Importance of Diversity in Library Programs and Material Collections for Children. This report examines many reasons why children need to see themselves in the books that are on the shelves at libraries, at schools, in story hours, and in the hands of children. One of the bedrocks of education and literacy is making meaning out of the world around you. Children need to see the world they recognize in the words they are reading in order to make the necessary connections to things beyond the page. When books are full of the dominant culture around children, but not their culture, they are missing out on these key connections. Beyond that, part of educating children has to be creating the self-esteem to continue to see yourself as a learner. Having books that reflect a child's own life and experiences helps to build that self-esteem.
But that is not the only reason we need diverse books. On the website of the very valuable organization We Need Diverse Books, they list as one of the benefits of having diverse books "(Children) learning the true nature of the world around them." While the world that I knew was semi-rural, Christian, and very white, that was just the small segment of the world I knew. I was basically unaware of even the black neighborhoods on the other side of my town. My world was small, and the books I was reading did not teach me anything about any other parts of the world. Books about different people builds cultural awareness, understanding, and empathy.