Pious Ali is talking about tea. “In my village where my grandmother raised me, the men in the family – or the “elders” as we call them – there’s a time of the day that they would sit down on their animal skin and fold their legs and drink their tea, or their chai.”
Ali is a community engagement specialist and City Council member in Portland Maine. Today, he’s also a part of our panel discussing the importance of diverse literature in classrooms and libraries.
We’ve just listened to children’s and YA author Hena Khan read an excerpt from her book Amina’s Song. At one point in the passage, the young protagonist and her family are preparing and drinking chai together. This is where Ali draws the connection. “It seems like tea, or chai, is almost universal to communities,” he says. “When Hena was reading that, I was smiling.”
Pious, a towering Ghanaian with a captivating presence, might not ordinarily have much in common with a Persian-American preteen girl. But through the ritual of tea, presented as words on a page, he was able to draw a parallel between his own experiences and those of the book’s main character – and by extension, to her family and greater community.
Hena Khan, whose other works include Under My Hijab and Golden Domes, Silver Lanterns, made a pointed response to Ali’s chai observation. She called out two empathy-draining factors that tend to present together: hearing disparaging remarks about specific racial/social/gender/ability groups, and not actually knowing anyone from within these communities.
“That combination is so powerful, right?” Khan asks. She pauses a moment before adding: “I do hope and believe that books and stories can be a powerful antidote. It’s hard to hate what you know. And if you get to know [diverse] families through literature and see how much you actually have in common with them, then hopefully that tolerance will grow.”
As it turns out, this isn’t just hopeful thinking. Books can be powerful tools for teaching about diversity and building empathy. In fact, there is compelling evidence that consuming literary fiction exposes readers to diverse viewpoints and grows the capacity for social-emotional investment, including empathy.
“Books and discussions can awaken a spirit of inquiry in students,” explains Kirsten Cappy, director of I’m Your Neighbor Books. “Texts that feature diverse characters can challenge readers to move out of their comfort zones, examine bias, develop increased cultural competence, and, working with their peers, create a new vision of inclusion and community.”
Just as Pious Ali linked his lived experiences to Amina’s, kids can make important text-to-self connections, too. In other words, with scaffolding and practice, young people can effectively draw parallels between what they read and their own lived truth. Discovering this common ground – especially in light of obvious differences – is an important footstool to empathy.
“Connecting with a character on the page actually makes us more willing to connect with a person like the character in the world,” Kirsten Cappy affirms. If young readers have access to literature that is reflective of all students, then opportunities to make unique connections are amplified.
“When you put books in the hands of kids who don’t normally get that exposure, it doesn’t just help [the one who’s ‘different’],” Pious Ali says. “It helps every other student who is in the classroom or school building.”
Teachers, librarians, and parents can capitalize on authentic text-to-self connections to teach about diversity and foster empathy. Here’s a blueprint for getting started:
1. Take inventory
It’s easy to overestimate the amount of diversity we’re exposing children to in print. Select ten books from your classroom, home, or library shelf at random. What ratio of the characters are unlike you or your student majority? How many cover characters are differently abled? Challenge traditional gender norms? Are experiencing homelessness? Are multilingual? Would identify as persons of color? Are white cisgendered?
2. Identify areas for growth
Which areas were overrepresented? Underrepresented? It’s worthwhile to begin by taking stock of our role (or our school’s role) in selecting texts that are reflective and inclusive of all learners and their families.
As humans, we’re drawn to what we know, so it’s likely that the lion’s share of the books we choose for students will mirror people and experiences that are familiar to us. Are there areas where we can stretch our own exposure in this regard?
Turning to our students, what features of diversity are represented in our class or school, but do not appear (or infrequently/incorrectly appear) in literature that is accessible throughout the learning day?
3. Shake it up
Access is a key hurdle in sharing diverse books with kids. If a book isn’t living in your classroom (or at home), kids aren’t learning from it. Not sure where to begin? Check out I’m Your Neighbor Books’ database of culturally diverse literature for kids and young adults. (While you’re there, check out their innovative “Welcoming Library”, a traveling collection of diverse books).
We Are KidLit Collective’s annual reading lists are full of teacher-tested ideas, too. Or, consider talking to students directly. Ask them what kinds of people, cultures, or lived experiences they’d enjoy learning more about (or have funds of knowledge to contribute to).
4. Practice read-alouds
Shared reading of diverse texts can be a powerful experience. We often tether read alouds to early elementary classrooms, but research supports their implementation across all grade levels. Interactive read-alouds can be used to draw students in, clarify information, build vocabulary, and create trust needed for forward momentum. (Schema Maps are a great tool to use here!)
5. Talk about it
Books invite readers into unfamiliar worlds – and a good story can enhance receptivity to new people, experiences, and ideas. This makes an excellent launch point for facilitated prosocial conversation. Talking through diverse texts can help students name points of commonality and build toward empathy. We Need Diverse Books’ Booktalking Kit is a great place to start!
6. Make extensions meaningful
It’s important to teach children about diversity and support them in practicing empathy. But ultimately, we hope for students to stretch even farther. Effective extension activities take learning beyond the pages of a book to engage directly with those who are different from the reader. This critical step moves learners in the direction of empowered empathy, or tolerance.
Looking for worthwhile resources? In addition to recommended reading lists, Lee & Low Books offers lesson plans and meaningful extension activities for a range of grade levels. Curious City, Learning for Justice (formerly Teaching Tolerance) and ADL Education all have lesson plans and resources for engaging students through diverse texts.
Students can learn to recognize intersections of commonality between themselves and the characters they read about. Readers who have access to books with diverse characters have more opportunities to “sit” with different kinds of people, to identify similarities, and to develop empathy.
Kirsten Cappy and her team are on a mission to increase kids’ access to texts that represent and reflect all kinds of humans. “There is diversity all around us, and we all benefit when we open our minds to see it. Books with diverse characters and settings can teach readers a lot about the world as well as about themselves.”
In short, she says, “Fiction has the power to change the universe.”
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