Everyone has their elementary school survival story that they wear with honour. Mine was of a mixed-race girl growing up in an institution surrounded by white kids. I don’t remember much by way of specific moments, but I remember feelings. One feeling has followed me all the way to adulthood, and thus understanding: that the person who decided what books to put on the library bookshelves had an immeasurable power for a girl in my place. I say this because those bookshelves would help to shape an identity struggle that would last well into my 20s.
Looking back, I find myself wondering how I would have interpreted my image of self if the curator of those bookshelves knew how important it was for me to see that mixed-race girl in my books, and for my peers to have experienced the true diversity of the world in theirs. How would a healthier reading culture have helped me to feel safer to explore myself out loud and without judgement? Or for the other children to stop judging, to listen and start learning about worlds other than their own. I’ll never know the answers but there is no doubt in the importance of the curator, the person that chooses what the children will read.
A reading culture is as invested as the person who builds it. As well as make the books available, that person has to encourage a child to approach difference before they begin to open minds. By that I mean allocating time, not just to read, but to read about other cultures; a purposeful activity that can help to shape a child’s perspective of the human race and contribute to an overall safer learning environment and a more empathetic generation. At the very least this generation will grow from children to adults, full of compassion and enthusiasm for different people, different traditions and the world outside of their own.
Making a better society aside, maybe a special illustrated book will ignite an early passion for travel, or language or food or people or discovery in general. A child being pushed out of their comfort zone and onto a different continent early on in books could spark a desire to see, feel or taste the real deal.
The books that are chosen to fill the shelves in an elementary school space are the water for the buds of the future.
The books that are chosen to fill the shelves in an elementary school space are the water for the buds of the future. The words, the quality, the art, and the discussion around them all paint a picture that creates a lifelong standard.
Although most people would agree that it’s never too early or too late to learn, many educators say that it’s from ages five to 11 when children are most open to difference — difference in culture, appearance, thought. Therefore, I’m convinced that this age range must be a pivotal time to expose them to anything other than themselves. It’s an age range filled with so many whys and why nots — questions that can be preserved if given the space to be asked. Cultivating a space for discussion — about the themes, the main characters, even the art — is what solidifies their critical thinking, one of the most important skills they will take with them as they move steadily into the future, in jobs, when traveling, throughout good and bad relationships, through adulthood.
As an adult looking back, my twenty-something self would have appreciated an earlier introduction to the world outside of a white classroom, or even a black one. It would have been helpful to have been given the space to explore the mixed-race gray areas of my young mind; and reading and discussing books from the angle of learning about different cultures might have helped me to answer questions about my own identity.
While not yet at a point of solving the tough social questions, elementary school age is a crucial point from which children move forward with life in the context of whatever they learn.
While not yet at a point of solving the tough social questions, elementary school age is a crucial point from which children move forward with life in the context of whatever they learn. A reading culture is the person who builds it — the librarian, the teacher, the parent. The curator. So take good care.