When I wrote my column for the Sept. 1 issue, on books that humanize the people of North Korea, South Korea, and Guam, I began by saying that I hoped it would be “quaintly irrelevant” by the time it was published. Well, it felt irrelevant even before it was published, but not because the United States and North Korea had negotiated a diplomatic peace agreement—no, it felt irrelevant because a horror closer to home had eclipsed it: the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville and the murder of a counterprotester.
Barring nuclear Armageddon, I doubt this column will feel quaintly irrelevant by the time it is published, though, because the events in Charlottesville have made it clear to just about everybody in the United States what people of color and Native people have been saying for years: racism is far from dead but is in fact alive and well.
In that light, I direct this column to my fellow white librarians. It is past time we walk the diversity walk.
Even if you haven’t got a single child of color in your community (and I bet you do, even if they’re not coming into your library), please take a cold, hard look at your collection. Since we know that the proportion of books by and about people of color and Native peoples relative to the total books published every year is pathetic, think about what that means for a collection that has developed over decades: it means that picture books with positive, corrective depictions of children of color and Native children are overwhelmed by picture books with white children, talking animals of all sorts, and talking machinery. Your other shelves are probably similar, with slightly different proportions of talking animals and talking machinery.
It is time to take affirmative action, and that’s exactly what I mean. Consciously select books with children of color and Native children, by creators of color and Native creators. We know your funds are limited. Maybe you can Scotch tape that Ramona the Pest back together for another few circulations and spend the replacement money on Spirit Week Showdown instead; ditto for Chasing Vermeer and The Harlem Charade. And then make sure you read Spirit Week Showdown and The Harlem Charade before you put them on display, so you can booktalk them with all the enthusiasm they deserve.
Selecting books for your next storytime? Leave Blueberries for Sal on the shelf and opt for Wild Berries instead. For heaven’s sake, keep reading The Snowy Day—but bring out Into the Snow as well. Likewise, as a complement to Whistle for Willie, how about reading Little Chanclas for another lighthearted tale of a child in an urban neighborhood?
White children need windows just as badly as children of color and Native children need mirrors. Work that we do now introducing white children to the other children who share their country won’t prevent another Charlottesville next week. But maybe if we do it systematically and intentionally, it will make another Charlottesville as unthinkable in 20 years as it was for so many of us a few weeks ago.
Vicky Smith is the children’s & teen editor.