During my sophomore year in high school, I was required to read Hunger of Memory, Richard Rodriguez's autobiographical account of losing touch with his family's culture and language as he progressed in his education here in the US. (For more info on this book, click here.)
I've always cared about diversity and creating a more loving world for people of all ethnic, linguistic, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds in a broad and general way, but as a teenager, I was still very unaware of issues like White privilege, systemic racism, and the struggles that many people face on a daily basis due to inequity and prejudice in our society. So when I began reading Rodriguez's book and found it somewhat boring*, I got frustrated and thought to myself: "Why do I have to read this book anyway? I'm not Mexican."
That's when I needed someone to (not literally) slap me and say, "Because other people's experiences and perspectives matter, numnuts." At that time in my life, even though I was somewhat aware of injustice in the world and wanted to care, I didn't see past my own small world. I needed someone to help me look beyond myself by explicitly showing me how to read critically, to name and confront inequity, to cherish stories from people different than me, but no one did. (Honestly, I can't blame my sophomore English teacher, because I know she was and still is an amazing educator who's very dedicated to diversity and equity -- I'm 99.99% sure that she didn't feel free to discuss these issues at length due to politics at my mostly White, very conservative school.)
Earlier this week, I came across a guest post by Taun M. Wright at the Lee & Low blog called "Why Do We Need Diverse Books at Non-Diverse Schools?" and it really hit home. In this post, Wright lists the multiple reasons why it's important for kids from "dominant" sociocultural backgrounds to read diverse books, including decreases in prejudice and increases in academic performance. All very true. I needed diverse literature as a child/teenager, and I also needed adults to point out to me why reading diverse literature is crucial in our society.
I'm so grateful that graduate school has invited me to delve into topics concerning social justice, diversity, and multicultural education and children's literature -- my studies have enriched my life so much and have allowed me to see beyond myself, and I hope that my research can encourage others. But what bugs me is that I didn't start exploring these topics in depth until graduate school. Why not elementary school, or high school at the very latest?
This is why we need diverse books -- not only to read them, but to discuss them and get kids from all backgrounds thinking and acting.
*I've re-read Hunger of Memory since high school and, thankfully, don't think it's boring anymore :)