Is every story ultimately about me? Must a story be about me to be a good story?

These are two essential questions that we have often given out when ELA teachers ask for examples of essential questions for use with younger students.

A key issue behind the questions is in the news. The New York Times ran a front-page article a few days ago on the absence of novels and short stories in school curricula that involve Latino characters. Here’s a quote:

Hispanic students now make up nearly a quarter of the nation’s public school enrollment, according to an analysis of census data by the Pew Hispanic Center, and are the fastest-growing segment of the school population. Yet nonwhite Latino children seldom see themselves in books written for young readers. (Dora the Explorer, who began as a cartoon character, is an outlier.)

Education experts and teachers who work with large Latino populations say that the lack of familiar images could be an obstacle as young readers work to build stamina and deepen their understanding of story elements like character motivation.

 “Kids do have a different kind of connection when they see a character that looks like them or they experience a plot or a theme that relates to something they’ve experienced in their lives,” said Jane Fleming, an assistant professor at the Erikson Institute, a graduate school in early childhood development in Chicago.

This is an interesting issue, with much larger implications for education. What, exactly, is a “relevant” or “meaningful” text? And how literal is the essential question to be taken, given that literature is surely as much about imagination as it is about reality?

Well, there is no shortage of strong opinions in the postings under the article, on either side of the issue. A sample:

Yes NYT let’s continue to beat the drum for the balkanization of America. Let’s make sure that every child in the United States learns that they are different in an ethnic, racial or sexual way from other children and should only derive knowledge or pleasure from those of their ilk. Let’s keep working on making E Pluribus Unum a thing of the past. Racism begets racism!

For me, this brings to mind that study that was reported in the NYT awhile back that noted that only white boys feel good after watching children’s television. White girls and black children had lower self esteem. And even this study about bias didn’t think to include Latino, Asian, or Native American children, three ethnic groups which are continuously shoved to the side in favor of a simplistic black/white racial dichotomy. Though I suspect the results on self esteem would have been similar. Children are quite the savvy readers/viewers. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be able to pick up stereotypes and insults from these entertainment mediums (“Long Duck Dong” “Me Love You Long Time” etc.) and use them to mock children of color. And without any positive heroes in literature and media for them to counterbalance this mockery, the effects can be very damaging, both on the minority children themselves and on white children’s assumptions about them.

I detest articles like this: so little Jose won’t enjoy reading because the characters are not a Mexican like he is? This is argument of inclusion does not further literacy; it merely furthers the already extreme egotistic mindset that has crippled this country. When I was little I grew up reading about the exploits of Dick and Jane, Mike, Mary and Jeff. There were no black characters for these white characters to play with, and that was fine. I didn’t feel the least deprived. I learned to read well, which was the sole purpose of formal education. If I wanted social or emotional validation, I wasn’t trained to insist that it come in the form of fictional characters. This attempt to morph fiction into a Benneton-type microcosm is merely a smoke screen to detract from the fact that the public school system is inadequate to impart the basics of a good education to its charges.

I remember how important it was to me to discover book with characters I could relate to, in my “early reading” years. It gave me the confidence to engage with characters and stories that were unfamiliar, as well. There is a demographic imperative here: our schools and libraries need to serve Latino students well; if they don’t the repercussion for our nation will be dramatic.

I almost hate to say this, but this article sounds like it’s making excuses. Those of us who grew up Asian American 30 years ago had zero role models in the books we read, movies we watched, or any other media form. It didn’t stop us from the educational achievements that resulted in today’s reverse affirmative action against Asian Americans.

I completely get that reading books full of white characters shaped our world, and I am all for cultural competency and diversity in our readings and our media images. But I think there are deeper fundamental issues about poverty, culture, how families value education, and access to quality education that have far more influence on a child’s educational attainment.

In homes where there is little, if any, exposure to print material children grow up associating reading with something that is done at school only. If they are stuck in classes where teachers are forcing phonics-based readers/worksheets down their throats (as practically mandated by NCLB), they come to associate reading with a tedious, boring chore. I have observed first-hand that reading-adverse high school students are delighted to finally read stories to which they can relate. Specifically, the books by Francisco Jimenez (The Circuit, Breaking Through, and Reaching Out) are big hits among my Mexican students and they are totally engaged while reading them. Yes, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Beverly Cleary write wonderful, memorable books for all, but sometimes struggling readers will be more motivated to read about characters who have had similar life experiences.

 ‘I think you are going to like this book. This book reminds me of you.’ [a quote from the article]. 

This really troubles me. I would prefer that teachers think of their students in terms of their interests and activities rather than the color of their skin. It troubles me to think that my kids (half-Chinese, half-white) may receive different book suggestions based on their skin color.

I knew the type of responses this article will bring. I know many people will denounce this as political correctness and hogwash. However, having characters that reflect you is really important. I am a 30 year old Black female, currently getting my doctorate. I was taught to read by my dad and could since I was two years old. My favorite books were the Berenstain Bears. I also gobbled up the Baby Sitter’s club, the Ramona series, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle and anything by Judy Blume. I loved Encyclopedia Brown and Wayside School is Falling Down. And I continue to read. However at 30 years old, I still remember the day I read Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, and encountered characters that looked like me. The feeling was wonderful as I stared at all the beautiful African characters in the book. The main character of the story becomes a princess because she is good-natured and kind. Her natural Afro hair was braided in two cornrows on either side of her head, just like the way my mother used to braid mine. Sometimes I would go into my mother’s bedroom and put her necklaces on my forehead, to imitate the princess in the book. After that I was a voracious reader of all the books with Black characters in the library. I can’t explain the feeling when I read them.

What I am asking is please not to discredit the feelings of minority children who simply want to see themselves reflected almost everywhere, the same way White children do. This is not an unreasonable response. Nor is it racist.

This is crazy.

I grew up in India reading a lot of Anglo comic books like Phantom, Superman, Batman and Anglo nursery rhymes and stories etc. Before reading this article today it never occurred to me that the protagonists are ‘white’. 

Children have no such preconceived notions till adults push their viewpoints on them, not caring about consequences.


I had the same experience, until I saw my first black superhero. Then I realized that all those others that didn’t seem to have a race, were white. And I wondered why that was.

 

Why is it so hard to see the truth? Both sides surely have some truth on their side; let’s go from there. Yes, it’s about imagination, but who wants to keep reading about only ‘others’? (Keep in mind the article is talking about young children). Bruner perhaps said it best, decades ago: a thoughtful education is neither about what is familiar nor what is unfamiliar.  It’s about making the strange familiar and the familiar strange. And isn’t that what great literature does?

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