Seeking Equity in Literature for Children
Amy Franks is the associate director of learning partnerships at Book Harvest, a North Carolina-based children’s literacy nonprofit organization devoted to providing an abundance of books and literacy supports to children during the first decade of their lives. Ms. Franks administers the summer Books on Break program, a network of school partnerships with school district leaders that provides pre-K through grade 5 students with the opportunity to select their own books to take home and keep forever. Y4Y spoke with her to gain a better understanding of supplying students with “books that fit.”
Y4Y: Ms. Franks, Y4Y appreciates that books are all-important in the lives of children, but you and Book Harvest advocate for book ownership in every household. Can you share with us why that is?
AF: Certainly! At Book Harvest, we firmly believe that owning books is a right rather than a privilege. The research on book ownership shows a startling gap between children who live in book-rich environments as opposed to those who do not. One study revealed that children growing up in homes with at least 20 books get three years more schooling than children from bookless homes. This gap can be seen academically and socially. We aim to decrease that gap — and really hope to close it completely. This work means ensuring children in Durham — and as we start our expansion work, children across North Carolina and the country — have books of their own, books that are reflective of them and their lived experiences as well as those that give them a chance to know about the lives and experiences of others.
Y4Y: Besides this compelling research on the value of book ownership, you are also well versed in the idea that children’s picture books especially — whether owned or checked out at a school or community library — “fit” the child who’s reading them. Can you share a bit about the findings around books that kids can see themselves in?
AF: We call this concept Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors, which was coined by Dr. Rudine Sims-Bishop in the early 90’s. She explains the concept like this: Books should be a mirror — something in which the reader can see themselves reflected; a window — something that allows them to see into the lives and experiences of others; and a sliding glass door — something that immerses the reader into others’ lived experiences. By asking the reader to challenge their notions about others through books, they ultimately gain greater insight and new knowledge. Dr. Sims-Bishop asserts — and we have seen this in our work — that exposure in this way helps children to better understand themselves as well as the people and world around them and beyond. These kinds of books aren’t just important for the underrepresented; they are important for those children who have the mirror experience the majority of the time so that everyone sees and realizes just how many different kinds of people, cultures, abilities, and experiences make up the world.
Y4Y: What are the statistics on equitable imagery in children’s literature?
AF: As of 2018, the stats across all children’s books published in the U.S. showed that 1% featured American Indian or First Nations characters, 5% featured Latinx characters, 7% featured Asian and Pacific Islander characters, 10% featured African American characters, 27% featured animals or inanimate objects, and 50% featured white characters. There has been progress, but there’s still quite a ways to go.
Y4Y: Let’s dive a little deeper on the concepts that you use in helping to select books for students, and that you’d hope 21st CCLC programs consider when stocking their own bookshelves.
AF: I spoke before about Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors. This is the lens through which my colleagues at Book Harvest and I look when selecting books to purchase. We select with a critical eye, ensuring the books introduce and celebrate human differences, and we pay special attention to the language being used. Words are important! We aim to include as wide a representation of differences as possible, going beyond race and culture. Consider children with differing physical, mental, and emotional experiences as well. Other tips when trying to make your bookshelves as inclusive as possible are to consult with experts — like librarians — for help selecting titles. Don’t assume just because a book has a BIPOC character (meaning a Black, Indigenous person of color) on the cover, that it’s a good representation. Review with a critical eye. Check for stereotypes. Choose books that have BIPOC as main characters, not just sidekicks or “extras” in the story. Try to choose books written and illustrated by the people who are being represented in the books.
Y4Y: It’s great that Book Harvest solicits and receives funding for this work in North Carolina. Do you have any suggestions for where programs could reach out in their own communities for similar opportunities?
AF: I would suggest finding out what grants are available through the state’s department of public instruction, checking into what might be available in your city’s budget, determining if your program is eligible for Title I funds or if you could team up with an entity that is eligible, and looking toward donors. Our organization is fueled by donations. Ask organizations and individuals to run book drives. You can even provide them with wish lists for the books you’d like to receive.
Y4Y: Family engagement is a big part of your literacy efforts. Do you have any particular tips on those connections, which are so central to 21st CCLC programming?
AF: Family engagement requires consistent work. The connections can’t be superficial, and you can’t depend on a one-and-done approach. You’ve got to connect to PTAs and to parent groups in your communities, and get out there. You have to be seen to establish trust. Invite families to events and give them a voice. Ask them what they want and need, then give it to them (if it’s feasible). Once connected, stay connected meaningfully. Some concrete things to do are hosting family literacy nights that include literacy-focused games and activities, holding workshops for parents around their schedules that are focused on supporting their children in becoming good readers, and hosting a family book club. Oh, and always provide a meal! Try to find sponsors for that. You’d be surprised at what you can get just by making the ask.
Y4Y: Can you offer any final thoughts or advice to our out-of-school time professionals on their literacy efforts in 21st CCLC programs?
AF: Talk to the experts. Invite them to your programs to give you a deeper understanding of how important reading — reading well — is to the future of every child. Evaluate the books you have in your program. Do some weeding out and some adding to what you have. Make sure the books are inviting to the populations you serve and provide rich, meaningful reading experiences. Incorporate literacy as much as you can in the activities you offer. Make it a seamless (and enjoyable) part of your program. Also, I am always willing to offer help. Folks can reach out to me anytime.
A former English/language arts teacher, Ms. Amy Franks is a National Afterschool Matters fellow (2019 cohort) and an Education Policy Fellowship Program fellow (2021-2022 cohort). She administers the Books on Break program, a network of school partnerships with school district leaders that provides pre-K through grade 5 students with the opportunity to select their own books to take home and keep forever every summer. She leads the organization’s equity-focused approach to book acquisition and provision. She also develops literacy-focused programs and workshops within and outside of school settings, ensuring connections among families, students, schools, and communities.