On Tuesday afternoon, Angie Zapata, assistant professor of literacy in the MU School of Education, discussed with a gathering of 30 students and faculty members how to decolonize bookshelves in children’s classrooms.
"In this time that we live in right now, this time where there is so much fear of the other, fear of difference, I think it’s our moral and ethical imperative to be mindful of the literature, the art, the spaces that we’re shaping in our classroom, to have these conversations, to recondition the norm," Zapata said.
She began by reading a quote from Junot Diaz, a Dominican-American author who recently published Islandborn, a children’s book about a young girl named Lola collecting memories of the island she left as a baby from people living in her Bronx neighborhood, that summed up the problem facing children’s literature today.
"A lot of us don’t see ourselves in our bookshelves, our libraries or our bookstores," Zapata said. "Our bookshelves tend to be disproportionately white and disproportionately male and do not represent who we are in this country or who we are becoming."
Lack of diversity
In 2015, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center stated that children’s books were 73.3 percent white, 12.5 percent animal/truck/etc., 7.6 percent African American, 3.3 percent Asian Pacific and Asian Pacific American, 2.4 percent Latinx and 0.9 percent American Indian and First Nation.
Zapata advises that future teachers look beyond books that represent themselves, go beyond the white and the male alone and look at the broader array of backgrounds represented in children’s literature.
Open the door
"The narratives that shape our ideas of particular people or of ourselves, picture books inform that narrative," Zapata said.
The more multicultural literature is used in the classroom, the more accepting of other people’s differences children will grow to be, according to April Mattix and Patricia Crawford in Connecting the dots: Exploring themes in adoption picture books.
She told attendees not to discount the value of picture books but to instead see them as forms of art with the potential to shape how children view the world in the future.
"It’s cute, and it counts," Zapata said. "It’s cute in the sense that it elicits that active emotional response, it resonates. It also counts because it opens up a really critical space to talk about diversity."
She said that picture books are a perfect avenue to begin conversations about subjects such as civil rights or immigration.
Building bridges among communities
"In this time that we live in right now, this time where there is so much fear of the other, fear of difference," Zapata said, "I think it’s our moral and ethical imperative to be mindful of the literature, the art, the spaces that we’re shaping in our classroom, to have these conversations, to recondition the norm."
She recommends searching for and selecting books with diverse representations of hair, skin tones, cultures, religions, etc. so children can learn about experiences different from their own at a young age.
To further complexify issues such as immigration, don’t rely on only having a single book about the immigrant experience, but rather a multitude, she said. Zapata said she cannot wait for the publications of La Frontera and Dreamers, two books that provide windows into immigrant experiences.