Saturday, May 03, 2014

You Can Give A Kid A Diverse Book But You Can't Make Him Read It...

This weekend, everyone is  "twitterpated" on a viral campaign for #WENEEDDIVERSEBOOKS. It has been an on going discussion in Children's Publishing for some time now, but the issue is definitely "trending" due to the announced panel  of the Children's Book "Rock Star" authors  at BookCon this year will all  be white and male,  read about that HERE...
Yes! We need diverse books, but we also need children to be literate enough to read them!
I have taught Art, Reading and Writing Enrichment programs to  Native American and Hispanic kids for over a decade, I'm also a freelance writer and illustrator and it baffles me that this industry does not talk more about literacy then it does. Giving a kid who can't read or reads way below their grade level a book, does not teach him or her to read, it just frustrates them, forget about expanding their world!
Years ago,  an illustrator friend of mine and her publisher very generously donated a huge stack of  her new book to my kindergarten and first graders. The kids were hugging their books as they left to go home. A next day survey revealed that none of the parents had taken the time to sit down to read the book with them. One parent sending her daughter to tears for badgering her. Knowing the parent, I had to wonder if the refusal came from her own poor reading ability.

Why aren't we talking about this side of problem?

I teach at a charter school in the middle of nowhere, near the Four Corners of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, across the County Road is the Ute Mountain Indian Reservation. Down the road, is the start of the Navajo Reservation. Some years over half of our students are Navajo. The schools on the "Rez" so bad, their parents drive them forty five minutes to the nearest bus stop to get to our school, which is not great in comparison to the schools in the nearest town, thirty minutes the other direction and in comparison to the school my children go to in our district still another twenty minutes away,  it is down right bad.
Two years ago, word got out we were bringing a modular in to have a library. Reading the article in the local paper, people in the community assumed that meant we did not have books and started donating them. We had books, lots of books, the kids just didn't read them, unless forced too.
It is also a misnomer that these families are too poor to buy books. They aren't. This families might live in shacks and run down trailers, but they have enough money to buy cheap laptops, tablets and video games from Walmart and when it is free time at school, that is what they reach for, not books.
How do you get a kid to read a book? Yes, having characters and stories they can identify with is important. But not struggling over every word is more important.
How do you get reading to come easy? Well, you send home plastic baggies with little books, to practice every night with a reading  log. What do white, educated, middle class parents do? Sit down with their kids and read every night. What do Migrant families do? Make darn sure their kids are learning to read, write and speak English and do their homework, even if they can not understand it themselves.
Sadly, that does not happen in the families who have been in poverty and illiteracy for generations, whatever their skin color. Lack of education drowns  trailer trash white children as well as minorities.

What can we do about it?
If parents are not or can not help their kids practice reading at home, then the schools have to do it and one or two teachers can not practice with twenty some children everyday, so it is up to local volunteers to come into the schools. Who would that be?
Well, I go to the mid day yoga class and it is full of retirees, bored retirees who take yoga everyday and then go work at the Humane Society catching feral cats in town. Nothing against cats, but if those ladies would donate an hour or two of their time a week and read with kids that would make a world of difference and yes I have encouraged them to do so.
What can the Children's Book industry do? Stop thinking the solution is to give kids a book!
The ski industry of Colorado could teach us a few things. Telluride is over the mountain from where my own kids go to school and like most schools near a ski resort, we have a ski program. From a very young age and for a very small fee, the Telluride Ski Resort gladly buses our kids up the mountain a half a dozen time a season, provides equipment and lessons to .........Teach Our Kids To Ski!
Why do they do that? Well, because  full day lift tickets are around $80 dollars and season passes can be upwards of $1000. They are trying to get kids addicted to skiing and build the next generation of people who will keep them in business!

We need to get kids, all kids, addicted to reading and then we would not be having the discussion we are because Publishing is a business, it is not a charity and when publishers take a chance and publish a book for minorities and no one reads it, they have to look at the bottom line.
What else can be done? Send authors and illustrators into low income schools. But who is going to pay for that?  Right now, often a published children's author or illustrator gets a large percent of their income from school visits. What schools can afford to pay $1000s of dollars for fees and travel expenses in this day and age? The well off one, which by the way, those school's  parents ARE making sure their kids read those little baggies of take home books and ARE taking their kids out to see the world and into bookstores. Hum?
Besides the epidemic of illiteracy is not going to be fixed by one time school visits and  the kids in these schools are too uninformed to know to be impressed by a Newberry or Caldecott winner.
Actually, because Art so much better bridges gaps between cultures, we should be sending illustrators out first! Brooklyn Illustrator Sophie Blackall proved that, taking paper and markers to children in Rwanda, scarred with years of brutality...

read about it HERE

I've been part of that magic, with Native American kids, time and time again. Without a word, we start drawing together and their world opens up and mine too!
If each of us connected to the Children's Book Industry, made the commitment to adopt our very own classroom, locally or through technology like Skype, and had an ongoing relationship with those 20 kids for the school year, it would make a world of difference.
Say, once a month, a one hour Skype visit. Sending out writing challenges to the class connected to what we write and then giving them individual feed back and praise for their work. Heck, you could even have the same book and help kids learn to read over Skype. Join in with the classrooms book club discussion. The ideas are endless and no longer is distance or time an excuse. pushing publishers to produce Diverse books really only for those kids who can already read? Which according to several studies, collected HERE , is a shockingly low number of the US population. The US Adult Literacy rate is around 75%-90% , whether that is just addressing the ability to read labels on medicine bottles, for work, daily living, etc. Those who can read, read, the average for adults is around a 7th or 8th grade level.  15% of us are at the reading level of those in an undergraduate program and well, that would be Us- those in this industry and our children, my argument is what about the other 85%? Pleasure reading is a self motivating activity, surely we all remember that from days when we had to read something we did not want to. You can give a kid a Diverse Book, but you can't make him read it.
Which brings up my last point and I have debated including it, but here goes. Piggybacking more liberal idea like sexual orientation into the discussion is a mistake. The lack of representation in publishing of books by and about people of races other than White European is a huge problem and yes, too few of these are being made, but reading up on industry news, books about gender identity and sexual orientation have greatly increased over the past couple of years. That is all I am going to say about that, but let me illustrate my point with my own experience.
The Four Corner is Conservative in their politics to say the least and the Art Teacher before me, was fired because a parent walked in to see this...

Botticelli's Venus

Not that she was showing it  to the children, but it was the cover of one of her reference books, in her bag, behind the teacher's desk. They fired her. Well, she was also teaching the children to love and protect predators in cattle country....most of the children's families were ranchers.
When I got the job, I had a choice to make. Push my agenda on these kids, or teach them up to be educated people to make their own decisions about well nudity in art, environmental issues, etc. I have lasted at that school for over ten years, because I leave my personal political and social slantings at the door and work to give them the tools to form their own. 
We, as a nation, have a lot to answer for before bringing Native Americans or any other minority in line with our agendas. My bet is they are more concerned about saving and preserving their own cultures, literally what is left of them. We can help them by giving them the tools- literacy, education, a way out of poverty before we start trying to bring them in line with our own way of thinking.


  1. Wow Julia, you have some great points. I think you should work on an article about this for the SCBWI Bulletin!

  2. I second that- so much wisdom here. I'm inspired about what I could be doing in my own communirty. Although a couple years ago, I volunteered to do a free art program for a local elementary of less resources, and was told I had to charge, or else it would jepardize their future budget monies for speical events. I haven't asked another school since, but maybe things have changed. Thanks Julia!