Be the change, being a teacher, books, Literacy, picture books, Reading, Reading Identity

If Not Us, Then Who?


When I was 17 years old, my history teacher pulled me aside and told me tone it down.  “It” being my opinion in case it intimidated others.  “It” being speaking my mind because sometimes I would come across so forceful that others did not want to engage.  So I stopped speaking in his class.  I stopped jumping in, afraid that I was going to rock the boat or upset the other students.  I knew I had opinions, but I didn’t want to be known as someone who did not make room for others.

A long time ago I decided that staying quiet would not get me anywhere.  That hoping that someone would understand what I needed without me actually speaking up was a delusion.  That I could no longer wait until someone spoke the words that burned within me so I could quote them and pretend I hadn’t thought the exact same thing.  I started writing, speaking, and teaching as the whole me, rather than the 17 year old girl who had been told to tone it down.  It has been quite a journey since then.

As educators we speak up all of the time.  We speak up for ourselves when changes need to be made in our schools.  We speak up for our students when they need us to advocate.  We speak up for our own needs and hopefully for the needs of our students.  We speak up when we see injustices that need to be righted, when our teacher stares are not enough.

So I think it is time for us to speak up and let our voices be heard because when I look at my classroom library, when I really study the books I am able to put in the hands of my students, I cannot help but wonder; where are the books from non-white authors?  Where are the picture books that center around kids that are going about their every day life that look like some of my students?  Where are the holiday books, the birthday books, the first day of school books, the books that share small slices of life that have characters that are not white?

While I buy the ones that I know of thanks to blogs like Reading While White, We Need Diverse Books, and the Nerdy Book Club, I am constantly reminded of how few there are out there for us to purchase.    When I receive a package of books I am constantly reminded of how often the kids in the books look just like my own kids in all of their whiteness.  How my kids must take it for granted that, of course, the books they read have people in them that look like them.  That I do not have to scour the internet to find books that remind them of themselves because those are the majority of books out there.   That in book upon book being white as a character is the standard not the exception.

We need diverse books.  We need own voices books.  We need more than what is out there and so we need to raise our voices.  There will be no change if we do not say loudly; “This is not enough.  This is not ok.”

So as educators we can speak up.  We can reach out and demand better.  We can spend our precious budgets on books that do not just offer up more white narratives, but actually mirror the diversity that we are surrounded by.  We can tell publishers that we need books that show all of the kids we teach.  We need books about Native American written by Native American, or other #OwnVoices authors.  We need books that go beyond the standard stories being shared so that when all of my students open up a book they can find a character that looks like them.  Or when my own white children read a book, they will see a character that does not look like them and understand that that too is the norm.

For too many years we have waited for publishers to notice the major gap that has been created, and while changes are under way, the process won’t speed up until we speak up.  So use your voice, use your connections, use your money to show the world that when we echo that “We need diverse books!” it is not just because it is a catchy phrase, but is the truth.

I am currently working on a new literacy book.  While the task is daunting and intimidating, it is incredible to once again get to share the phenomenal words of my students as they push me to be a better teacher.  The book, which I am still writing, is tentatively Passionate Readers and will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  So until then if you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

5 thoughts on “If Not Us, Then Who?”

  1. Please next year could you consider to select books that are not BANA (British, Australian, North American) books for your GRA? I was a little disappointed in this year’s choice, although they are all superb books, I would like something like this to showcase the superb literature other nations have to offer.
    Picture books – Niki Daly (South African)
    Lower Elementary – A Faraway Island: Annika Thor
    Upper Elementary – Bronze and Sunflower (Chinese) Cao Wenxuan
    Middle school: The Secret Sky – Abawi, Atia

    1. Yes, and I really try to offer up contenders from other countries, but know that I am only one person reading books. However, we run into distribution problems when we pick non-US books sometimes. Last year every single copy of Fish was sold from anywhere, used ones too, that means that people couldn’t actually read the book. I am always looking for suggestions too so thank you for those.

  2. I liked everything you said until you said “white” as if someone is or ever was a skin color. (ref: genetically “black” v. genetically “white.”) I too have experienced being an outcast and prejudicially discriminated against for multiple reasons. Yet you had me going well before you separated us in choosing to note the particular overt separateness. I encourage you to speak up and out acts that make us separate and not equal and as Audre Lorde (unknown to me by color, religion, politics, ethnicity, affiliations, etc.- known only to me by words) once said, “Your silence will not protect you.” I continue to dream and hope someday that our gender, “color,” religion, ethnicity, etc. would not define you or I and that words like “white” or “black” or “red” or “yellow” will diminish and not define us.. I hope that YOUR actions and words will define you. But then sticks and stones may break our bones while words WILL ever hurt us all. Ideas are the greatest of tools that can become weapons. We may outlaw bad “actions,” but if we outlaw all bad words, how then will we discover or confront bad actions or words? A deep conundrum?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s