Kids like to learn about themselves and others while reading. If you’ve spent time with young people, you know the sparkle in their eyes a book can generate, the excitement they show when they find a good story and the contagious energy they emit when they learn about something new.
This means you have great power when you publish books. You get to decide whose stories children learn about. The act of publishing sends a message of importance. It tells kids—and adults—that the story is true and valued. If we’re all working collectively to ensure our children are given accurate representations of the lived experiences of diverse people, you have a particular responsibility to thoroughly vet manuscripts for the accurate representation of subjugation and resistance.
As we’re sure you’re well aware, Scholastic, a leading provider of literacy resources for kids, recently received a great deal of criticism about a children’s book they published titled A Birthday Cake for George Washington. The criticism stemmed from the fact that the book depicts enslaved people as proud, smiling workers; critics referred to the text as a sanitized version of slavery in the United States. One outraged commenter on Amazon wrote, “This … author fails to mention that George Washington's chef Hercules [the book’s protagonist] ran way, because he did not want to be a slave.”
Scholastic ultimately agreed with the book’s critics and withdrew it, stating it “does not meet the standards of appropriate presentation of information to younger children.”
Publishers, we want to help you provide our kids with books that accurately describe and represent the voices and experiences of all people—including the diverse experiences that occurred within the institution of slavery. We also want to help you avoid the public relations nightmare Scholastic just experienced.
How can we do that?
We’ve developed a tool called Reading Diversity to help you (and educators) think about whether a text adds to or detracts from an accurate, representative story. You can ask questions like:
- Do the identities or experiences of the author(s), illustrator(s), character(s), speaker(s) or narrator(s) contribute to students’ diverse reading experiences?
- Does this text accurately reflect lived experiences in terms of setting, characters, speakers, events, language and illustrations?
- Does the content perpetuate or rely on stereotypes, generalizations or misrepresentations?
- Are certain people or groups left out or given roles that don’t enable them to be heard?
- What is the historical, social or cultural context in which this text was written?
Educators need publishers to provide historically accurate depictions of complex issues and time periods for children of all ages. Our history is sometimes painful; focusing on the “best version” of that history to make it more palatable to young readers denies them the education they deserve. Let’s continue to nurture our kids’ love of reading—and commit to telling complete stories that highlight the voices of people whose lived experiences include subjugation and resistance.
Wicht is the senior manager for teaching and learning at Teaching Tolerance.