Be Sure to Include our Rhythm, Not Just Our Blues
Updated: Jul 2, 2020
In my previous professional role as a literacy coach, I had opportunities to facilitate a series of training sessions that revolved around Building K-5 Diverse Classroom Libraries. I leaned heavily on the research of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, who coined the analogy of texts being like windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors. In my presentations, I consistently shouted out educators whom I admire and respect like Chad Everett, Colby Sharp, and Donalyn Miller who consistently champion this work of providing students access to quality literature in their classrooms, schools, and communities. Of the many things covered in the training sessions, there one thing I was sure to stress: "When building a #diverse library for your classroom be sure that the experiences of the characters are just as diverse as race, identity, and culture. Be mindful. Do not ONLY focus on the struggle experiences narrative when adding titles with BIPOC characters." When we as teachers engage in this sometimes unconscious practice of making certain cultures monolithic, we are doing a horrible disservice to not only our students but also ourselves. We (speaking as a Black person) are more than just our blues. Allow me to explain this a bit.
I can vividly remember being a new teacher, fresh out of college, eagerly and excitedly shopping for books to fill my first classroom library. I was determined to make it as #multicultural as possible, and by multicultural I meant, not all White. My first teaching assignment was in what was considered an urban school where over 85% of the student population was Black. I was building my classroom library with this in mind. Many of the books I gathered from garage sales and bargain bookstores that had Black and Brown characters on their covers and within the illustrated pages, all sang familiar tunes: Slavery, The Civil Rights Movement, and Poverty. The blues. At the time, I didn't see much harm in this. I'm certain I'm not the only one. It was my thinking that:
Black students should know and understand their history.
Black students should be able to read stories of resistance, perseverance, and overcoming to encourage them to dream big and take no mess.
Black students should be able to relate to the characters and their experiences in the books they read and have access to.
My thinking wasn't entirely wrong, but it was grossly limited. These limited lenses were the same ones given to me by my teachers to look through when I was a kid. I'm an 80s baby. No harm intended. I was given access to what was available in literature during that time, which wasn't much when considering windows for myself. Fast forward to the late 90s, early 2000s during my teacher preparation. Children's and Young Adult literature was lacking in not only its diversity of visible characters but also the authentic experiences of Black, Indigenous, People of Color (#BIPOC). Since then, there have been improvements made in the publishing world, with an increased percentage of books depicting characters from diverse backgrounds, but as the late Robert Frost remarked, "we have miles to go before we sleep."
Thanks to the colleagues and champions I've met and worked alongside for now 17 years in education, the texts in my classroom library and those that I use as part of the curriculum, have been intentionally examined, some removed, and definitely expanded to include narratives beyond the struggle experience. Beyond the blues. Once you know better, it is your responsibility to do better. I took this charge seriously. My reading of children's and YA titles increased dramatically. My book buying habits and personal library collecting were aggressive in this charge. I wanted to #DisruptTexts. If you've never heard of the grassroots efforts of Disrupt Texts, YOU MUST check them out. It's a movement organized by teachers for teachers to challenge language arts curriculum choices as it relates to literature, focused on creating a more inclusive, representative, and equitable experiences with students and texts in our classrooms. The hashtags and terms #blackgirlmagic and #blackboyjoy aren't just trendy things to say, tweet, and tag your social media posts with. This is part of the movement that humanizes Us, our experiences, and stands firmly on the belief that BLACK LIVES MATTER. #blackgirlmagic and #blackbojoy also exemplify my idea that our rhythm (which is comprised of our intelligence, our swag, our confidence, our culture) should be showcased and amplified loudly on the shelves of classroom libraries, just as much if not more than, our blues.
Below you will find what I'd consider a fantastic book list that contains stories that will add volume to the Black rhythm section of your young people's libraries. All of the books recommended here I consider to be positive and authentic representations of the Black experience, making them strong "windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors". All books are hyperlinked to my favorite independent booksellers at Bookug & This Is A Bookstore if you're looking for an indie bookstore to support. Click the links. Read the book summaries. Make a wishlist. Buy a few. Read, share, and enjoy!
The Black Book 'Play'list
(recommendations compiled by Dionna Roberts)
Ok, Ladies First (shout out to Queen Latifah and Monie Love)
The following recommendations are some of my favorite stories that have Black female lead characters.
Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams,
My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich by Ibi Zoboi
A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramee
Blended by Sharon Draper
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis
The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson
The Quickest Kid in Clarksville by Pat Zietlow Miller
Patina by Jason Reynolds
Exquisite by Suzanne Slade
Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beatty
Just Right: Searching for the Goldilocks Planet by Curtis Manley
I Got The Rhythm by Connie Morrison
Queen of the Scene by Queen Latifah
Where the Fellas At?
The following recommendations are some of my favorite stories that have Black male lead characters.
What Lane? by Torrey Maldonado
Tight by Torrey Maldonado
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
Finding Langston by Lesa Cline-Ransome
New Kid by Jerry Craft
Ghost by Jason Reynolds
Sunny by Jason Reynolds
Lu by Jason Reynolds
Miles Morales Spider-Man by Jason Reynolds
Becoming Muhammad Ali by Kwame Alexander & James Patterson (pre-order)
Crown an Ode to the Fresh Cut by Derrick Barnes
I Am Every Good Thing by Derrick Barnes (pre-order)
Ron's Big Mission by Rose Blue
Whoosh!: Lonnie Johnson's Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions by Chris Barton
Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library by Carole Boston Weatherford
When the Beat was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop by Laban Carrick-Hills
Can I kick it? Yes, You Can! (Shout Out to A Tribe Called Quest)
The following recommendations are some of my favorite stories that celebrate Black characters finding themselves, experiencing challenges, and 'doing life' with family and friends.
Look Both Ways by Jason Reynolds
The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson
Clean Getaway by Nic Stone
The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
Clayton Byrd Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia
Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams-Garcia
Going Down Home With Daddy by Kelly Starling-Lyons
Hair Love by Matthew Cherry
Peeny Butter Fudge by Toni Morrison
Bronzeville Boys and Girls by Gwendolyn Brooks
Victory in a Land Called Fantasy (Shout out to Earth, Wind & Fire)
The following recommendations are some of my favorite stories that incorporate magic, sci-fi, fantasy, and adventure.
The Last Last-Day-of-Summer by Lamar Giles
Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky by Kwame Mbalia
Dragons In A Bag by Zetta Elliott
Akata Witch by N Nedi Okorafor
Children of the Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
Zero Degree Zombie Zone by Patrik Henry Bass
The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste
The above link is a GOOGLE doc containing 20 additional titles.