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An Experiment with Inclusive Literature: One White Elementary Librarian’s Endeavor to Diversify Her Picture Book Collection

In May 2017, I was invited by Anne Sibley O’Brien, author and illustrator, and by Dr. Krista Aronson, psychology professor at Bates College in Maine, to participate in the Diverse BookFinder Advisory Council. The Diverse BookFinder is an online comprehensive source that parents, teachers, librarians, authors, and publishers can use to locate picture books featuring people of color and indigenous peoples. It is linked with a circulating collection of picture books, housed at Ladd Library on the Bates College campus, featuring characters from First/Native Nations, Asian, Black, Latinx, Middle Eastern/Arab, and multiracial backgrounds, in stories set in the United States and abroad. This is my 17th year as a school librarian and it has been in the last few years that I have been aware of the need to have an inclusive collection that reflects our diverse population. So when I received the invitation to join the Diverse BookFinder Advisory Council, I enthusiastically said, “Yes!”

As part of my work on the Advisory Council, I offered to run an experiment for this 2018-2019 school year asking the question: What if the only picture books and picture book biographies I buy for my K-3 collection only featured characters of color? Lots of secondary questions quickly flooded my mind:

  • Will there be enough picture books and picture book biographies published to purchase?
  • Will these titles be easily available through my two vendors, Ingram and Follett?
  • Will I have to search other vendors to find the titles I want to purchase and, if so, how easy or not easy will it be to purchase from a different vendor? (PO’s, processing, etc)
  • How will I find new inclusive, quality titles to purchase?
  • Will I, a white librarian, do this experiment justice?

The only way I was going to find the answers to these questions was to try it.

The first thing I did was to do an informal analysis of my purchases from the last two years. I created a report in my library catalog system that told me which picture books and picture book biographies I purchased in a given fiscal year and then I looked at each title and tallied them as either Y (features characters of color), N (does not feature characters of color), or NH (nonhuman characters). The results of my analysis can be found in the pie charts below. This is my 3rd year in my district. I was not surprised to find that, even as recently as a few years ago, only 15% of the picture books/picture book biographies purchased featured characters of color.

76 titles total
65 Picture Books : 11 Picture Book Biographies
Y = Yes, characters of color | N = No, not characters of color
NH = nonhuman characters

138 titles total
113 Picture Books : 25 Picture Book Biographies
Y = Yes, characters of color | N = No, not characters of color
 NH = nonhuman characters

However, it was nice to see that from 2016-2017 to 2017-2018, I clearly doubled the number of books I purchased featuring characters of color. But I knew that I could do better than that! In addition to setting the goal of only purchasing picture books/picture book biographies with characters of color, I also created these two goals:

    • Increase the number of books with characters of color to at least 50% of the total picture books/picture book biographies purchased.

I also decided to set some exception criteria for purchasing because I could foresee some instances where I would need to buy a book that did not feature characters of color and I wanted to be able to clearly explain why. I will make every attempt to ensure that each picture book/picture book biography purchased features characters of color with these exceptions:

    • Books that have won children’s literary awards
    • Books that are needed for curriculum support
    • Books that are requested by teachers; however, l will first try to find books with characters of color that satisfy the teacher’s request
    • Books that have nonhuman character that have excellent reviews
  • Books that students request

So there it is! That’s the plan for my experiment and I am looking forward to see how this year plays out. Stay tuned as I will write updates about my progress in the winter and the spring.

Laura Beals D'Elia is the school librarian at the Armstrong Elementary School in Westborough, MA

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