Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Free Choice Reading & Tokenism

Being in a public library, at this time of year all I can think is “summer reading,” and I know that for many it is the same.   Kids need to read during the summer; kids read when it’s fun; it’s fun when they get to choose their own reading.  

But choosing their own reading really means just that; if a grownup is suggesting a book, it’s almost automatically tainted. So having a selection of books that kids can choose from is key.   Ergo: summer reading lists.

What is in your summer reading list? Do you have one, or use one? What kind of choice does it offer readers?

Last year Edith Campbell assembled a group of colleagues to create the We’re the People summer reading list.  Now in its second year, it gently suggests at the top of the website that you use it to “add to your summer reading list” books that are written, illustrated, and about people of color or First Nations/Native Americans.   However, I think it functions beautifully as a stand alone summer reading list in its entirety, and calls attention to the a “one of each” token representation that sadly still exists in many book lists out there.

The title of this list recalls for me the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)’s “We the People” Bookshelves that were promoted 2003-2011.  The program awarded sets of selected titles to public and school libraries; each year’s “classic” book collection was related to “a theme important to the nation's heritage. ...In addition to introducing young readers to good literature, the Bookshelf promotes understanding of abstract or general ideas through the power of particular stories.”  The first year’s list, on Courage, included Little House on the Prairie and The Matchlock Gun.  Debbie Reese posted a wonderful letter by Jean Mendoza in 2007 about continuing concerns with these booklists, asking that the “We the People” Bookshelf “get in synchrony with reality.”  Some of the final lists in the project showed slight improvement.

Besides summer reading lists, many libraries offer free books in the summer, as outreach or incentive for summer reading programs.  My library offers a giveaway book as the prize to approximately 6000 children who read at least 20 days in the summer.  Buying enough paperbacks that will offer the right selection to any kid who stops in one of our 17 libraries is a challenge; we want to make sure that when they browse the prize bin, they feel they are being awarded a prize.   We buy most of these books from Scholastic’s Literacy Partnerships, the arm of the publishing giant through which providers who are giving away books to children can buy very cheap paperbacks.  Scholastic has always offered titles to serve a diverse community, though I still wince when I must seek out the word “multicultural” in the curated sets, and dodge over-used standards and problematic titles.  We don’t rely on Scholastic, as it also does not fully meet our demand for popular non-fiction and graphic novels.  At the same time that I sense its selection is improving, we continue to advocate for and secure funding to raise our price point per giveaway paperback, so that we can shift more of our purchases to other vendors.

In its related arm Scholastic Reading Club (through which kids can purchase inexpensive paperbacks through their classroom), Scholastic’s We Have Diverse Books partnership with We Need Diverse Books resulted in a “Special Collection of More than 75 Diversity-Themed Books for Children” list, and there are plans for 8 such lists in the 2016-17 year.  It’s progress, I guess.  Still, I yearn for kids to have the choice wherever they look for a selection of recommended books that will inspire them to read for themselves, for fun, without having to seek the “special” section.

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