Why We Need Diverse Books in Schools

By Maya Pottiger, Word in Black
Guest Column

Ever since he was young, Marchánt Davis has always loved children’s media and the power it possesses. Though his favorites were “Sesame Street” and “Reading Rainbow” — especially seeing himself represented on screen through LeVar Burton — he says he was “strangely” inspired by “Snow White.”

“It was always playing on TV,” says Davis, an actor, director, writer, and now author of A Boy and His Mirror. And it was this story that he wanted to repurpose for his own children’s book geared toward the current generation.

Thinking about the relationship kids have with their phones and what identity means, Davis wanted to create a story that spoke to people coming up in a world with Tik Tok, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat.

But, mostly, Davis wrote the book hoping young Black boys would read it. Though he doesn’t believe any one thing will cure problems, he wants the book to be a step toward boys acknowledging their feelings and countering some of the toxic masculinity in the Black community.

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Davis called back to what Sheryl Lee Ralph said in her acceptance speech at the Critics Choice Awards.

“When you look in the mirror, you gotta love what you see,” Davis quoted. “And so I wrote a book in an effort to help kids look in the mirror and love what they see.”

Though he hopes the book empowers young Black boys, they aren’t the sole audience Davis has in mind.

“It’s a book for anybody who feels ‘other’ by the way they look, or anybody who has self-doubt,” Davis says. “It’s a book that I want kids to read and feel empowered, feel like they have agency.”

The problem is that, around the country, books like Davis’ are being removed from the shelves of classrooms and school libraries. Books that feature Black protagonists or talk about Black history.

And that’s a problem.

‘I Grew Up Thinking We Wanted to Learn History So We Wouldn’t Repeat it’

Between books being banned, challenged, and removed from school shelves — and the College Board giving in to bullying and altering its AP African American Studies course — there’s a lot of talk about what should be taught in classrooms, how it should be done, and who should have a say.

We shouldn’t be hiding history from students because they need to learn the truth, says Kathy Lester, a middle school librarian and president of the American Association of School Librarians. Plus, when students find books they’re interested in, they read more, and it creates conversation and opens up topics for discussion.

“I always grew up thinking that we wanted to learn our history so we wouldn’t repeat it,” Lester says. “We can learn from it and grow from it.”

We can’t understand our current politics and culture without understanding the treatment of African Americans in the United States, as well as the integral role they’ve played in shaping the country, says Caroline Richmond, the executive director of the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books.

“In order for us to be the nation that we claim to be — a land where all people are created and treated as equals — we have to teach our children how this has not been and still is not the case today,” Richmond says. “And so, if we’re not teaching Black history in our schools, then our students — of all races and backgrounds — are not receiving a holistic education.”

In its “Banned in the USA” report, PEN America collected book bans in states around the country between July 1, 2021, and June 30, 2022. The analysis found that bans occurred in 138 school districts across 32 states, and these districts represent 5,049 schools with a combined enrollment of nearly four million students.

While the majority of states with reported bans saw less than 50, some states racked up over 100, with Texas topping the list at 801 bans.

But it’s not just about history books. For Black and Brown kids, it’s about seeing yourself represented in history, in a book, but also in the daily experiences that children face.

“We want our kids — and we want every kid — to be able to see the experiences of Black children in the books that they read because it makes every person more relatable,” says Derrick Ramsey, co-founder of the nonprofit Young, Black & Lit. “If you can see that person, a Black student, doing a science project through a book, then that’s exciting to any student who wants to get into science.”

Davis says there’s more power in variety than singularity because there is so much more to learn.

“It’s a very dangerous act to not allow children and people the experience of reading a variety of different texts because that’s what informs us about the world. That’s what helps us build our ideas and thoughts around what we believe,” Davis says. “If we are showing kids a singular thing, then I think we’re alienating them and we’re manipulating them.”

The Message a Book Ban Sends

Banning these books sends a message — both to Black students and their non-Black peers.

“It sends a message to Black students that their history doesn’t matter, that it’s not important,” Lester says. “Then, for white students, that it’s not important for them to learn about it or that their history is more important — which are not good messages to be sent.”

And their non-Black peers are also harmed because they end up learning a lopsided view of history that ignores huge swaths of the American narrative, Richmond says.

“They won’t have the opportunity to really grapple with our shared past,” Richmond says, “to read primary sources, to ask probing questions, and to engage in thoughtful discussion and build empathy. Acknowledging past harm and our current inequitable society is the first step in creating real, long-term, sustainable change.”

Of the banned books studied by PEN America, they were most likely to have LGBTQ+ content (41%) or characters of color (40%). Among the top reasons for book bans were titles having to do with race or racism (21%), and titles with themes of rights or activism (10%).

When thinking about these book bans, Davis thinks there are some important questions to ask those doing the banning: What do you want? What do you want Black children to feel by removing those books? What does removing them actually do?

“I’m just like, ‘Why?’” Davis says. “What’s your intention? What are you saying to the kids about that book, specifically?”

For Ramsey, the message is clear: “Your history doesn’t matter. Your experiences don’t matter. Who you are doesn’t matter.” It’s a challenging space for a child who is already trying to find their path in the country and in the world.

Plus, it’s not just talking about Black history or Asian history, Ramsey says, it’s American history.

“Education should be the space where you can learn about everything and anything that you want. There should be no limits to the creativity of the ideas and the dreams that you inspire into every child,” Ramsey says. “This really takes away a lot of that opportunity to see what you could be, even if you hadn’t thought about it before.”