Today, July 30th, is International Friendship Day. Happy International Friendship day, everyone!!
What? You’ve never heard of this holiday which sounds totally amazing but also totally made up? Well, International Friendship Day was started by the UN in 2011 “with the idea that friendship between peoples, countries, cultures and individuals can inspire peace efforts and build bridges between communities.” Sounds pretty great, right? I thought so, too. Which is why Margot and I went to the library in search of some books about friendship to celebrate the occasion. I went up to the desk in the children’s room and said “Hello! Tomorrow is International Friendship Day and we were hoping you could give us some suggestions of some diverse books about friendship!” The librarians laughed at me. They turned to one another after I asked my question and laughed.
I said, “Is this a strange question?” They continued laughing as they said “No, of course not.” Smiling though discouraged, I said, “Okay, well, we will be right over here if you think of any books that might be useful. Thanks!”
They came over with a stack of half a dozen books for us to look through. They apologized for the fact that they did not find any “International” books for us. Of the books that we were given, three of them featured animals who are friends, and the others all featured white children. All of the proffered books had male protagonists. I groaned. (Internally, I mean we were in the library after all.) Margot still wanted to borrow some of the books and so we borrowed two friendship books from the pile the librarians offered us. One about a boy who moves to a new town and is afraid to make new friends, but, he does. The other featured unidentified green creatures and was a heavy handed book about how to be a good friend.
I knew I was cutting it close to get any more books in time for the Official UN Holiday, but I was determined to find some suitable children’s books to mark the occasion. When we got home I turned to coloursofus.com a website that is all about multicultural children’s books (and one that I encourage you all to check out…) As soon as I logged on to their site, today’s post came up and! I knew they’d have my back! The title of today’s post is “18 Multicultural Children’s Books about Friendship“. I guess they have the same amazing calendar of holidays that I do.
I put all of their suggested books on hold and sat back from the computer pleased with myself. But, then I started thinking more about it. I had asked specifically for books that showed diversity and I was laughed at and then handed a stack of books that did not meet my request. Maybe they were laughing at my enthusiastic desire to celebrate a non-traditional holiday with library books? Or maybe I had walked in on them sharing an inside joke? Did I have kale in my teeth?? The rapid cycling thoughts of my social anxiety, however, are not the issue. But, they did not know of, or have available, ANY books AT ALL that featured an actual diverse cast of human characters? To me, this is a problem.
This is where I make the disclaimer that some of my best friends are librarians. (Hi, Auntie Sue!) And that I have spent months of my life inside the library and it is a safe haven for me and I have gotten many, many wonderful suggestions from librarians in the past. We make great use of our library because we are voracious readers and because LIBRARIES ARE AWESOME.
Margot and I each have our own library cards because we kept maxing out the number of books we were borrowing. (At our library you max out at 50 books) But, we are hardly the only ones using the library. According to a recent Pew Research poll, the most frequent users of public libraries are minorities and families with children.
So, let’s imagine, for instance, a young Latina approaching the librarian’s desk and asking if they have any good books about magic. Wouldn’t it be amazing if they handed her a stack of books featuring diverse characters, including some young Latinas? Wouldn’t it be great for her to see someone who looks like her in a powerful and interesting role? But, they will probably direct her to Harry Potter. Which is about a white boy. So, for the fun of it, let’s imagine also that a young white boy asks for some books about magic. Wouldn’t it also be amazing if he got his hands on some books featuring characters that look nothing like him, so he can see that there are other types of people in the world who have interesting stories? But, he also will be directed to Harry Potter, confirming his worldview that white men are the most powerful and interesting people.
What can we do about this problem? First, we need to have more children’s books published featuring non-white and female protagonists. And then we need to get libraries to buy them and display them proudly on the shelves. But, we also need them to cull some of the books featuring white male characters, especially stories that perpetuate dangerous gender and racial stereotypes. I’m not talking about burning books here, or about censorship. What I am suggesting is that we not only need to have more books featuring diverse characters, but we need to make room for those books. It can not be a shelf with one-hundred books about white people and one book about a person of color. Or, one-hundred stories featuring a male protagonist and one featuring a woman. That’s what we have already and it’s not good enough.
What if we had a library that had zero books about white men and endless shelves of books featuring women and gender non-conforming people and people of color and people with disabilities and all the varieties of human life that exist? Wouldn’t that be amazing? White children do not need to see more characters who look like them. But, children of color DO. Young boys do not need more stories about how interesting and powerful they can be. But, young girls DO. When considering the possibility of such a library, I remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s answer to the question “When will there be enough women on the Supreme Court?” which is, “When there are nine.” People are taken aback by her answer and she responds “but there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.” We are supposed to accept stacks and stacks of books about white boys for our children, but could we accept that they might benefit from having stacks and stacks of books with no white boys?
It is not good enough for our libraries to have shelves and shelves of books featuring white male protagonists. It is not good enough for our libraries to have shelves and shelves of books written by white men. It’s not good enough for our children to see token diversity in the form of sidekicks for white male leads. It’s not even good enough for our children’s books to feature diverse casts of animal characters.
We need more meaningful representation for our children in their library books. There are books out there that fit these criteria. They even exist on our library shelves. But, it means nothing to have them there if they are drowned out by many, many books that do not satisfy these needs.
We need the librarians to have stacks and stacks of diverse books to recommend to interested children. And so, when my stack of multicultural friendship books comes in at the library, I’m planning to take them over to the librarians who laughed at my question so that next time, instead of laughing, they can say “I know some great books I can show you!”