Celebrate Black History Month with Books!

Posted on Wednesday, February 5, 2020 by Melissa Howison

When Nicole Johnson was working at the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School in California almost 30 years ago, all the curriculum books featured African American characters. It was an incredible opportunity for young people of color to read books with characters that looked like them and had similar experiences. Unfortunately, exposure to such a comprehensive collection of diverse books was very rare.

“There just was this sort of dearth of representation in children’s literature,” Nicole said. She has since founded Baltimore Read Aloud and become the Executive Director at We Need Diverse Books, two organizations dedicated to increasing diversity in literature for children and young adults.

Representation has steadily increased. Only 13% of children’s books published in 2012 featured a main character of color, according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center. In 2018, that number was up to 28%, but children from all marginalized communities are still underrepresented.

We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) is developing strategies to make effective and sustainable changes. “There’s a lot of effort and emphasis and focus on making sure that publishers are aware of one, that these books are needed and two, there are also diverse authors that are prepared to write these stories.” Nicole said. Another layer of the issue is that many of the books with diverse characters are written by authors who haven’t lived that experience.

WNDB has an internship program for young publishing professionals who can help advocate for representation within the industry, and a mentorship program to support unpublished writers.

Baltimore as a city has made strides to increase young people’s access to diverse books. For example, Nicole mentioned the success of Enoch Pratt’s One Book Baltimore challenge, but there’s still a long way to go.

“I think because there is so much focus on making sure young people are ready for the standardized tests and that they perform better academically on the tests that something gets lost, particularly for young people who are struggling readers, to just enjoy a good book,” Nicole said.

All of us can help make sure children are having enjoyable reading experiences by advocating for and celebrating diverse books and authors. The Village Learning Place is committed to providing options in our collection that resonate with the youth and families who make use of our lending library.

To celebrate Black History Month, consider reading books by African American authors, donating a book from our #WeNeedDiverseBooks Amazon wish list, which features titles by African American authors this month, or search your home bookshelves for titles by diverse authors that you can donate.

Then, make a commitment to learn about and read more books by diverse authors all year long, and encourage your family members and friends to do the same.  

“I think it’s important that all parents advocate for this, not just black parents advocating for black children to see black characters, but for all parents to want to see a diversity of experiences and representation in their children’s classroom library, their school library, their community library,” Nicole said. The Village Learning Place agrees.

Throughout February, in honor of Black History Month, our website and social media will feature books by African American authors available at our library.