The Message of Your All White Booklist

“Well, they’re my favorites, I can’t help if I like what I like.”

Back in July, Grace Lin shared a picture from her local public library on Twitter. When I saw it, my heart sank. I felt a shock of embarrassed sadness. And then I just felt fucking mad.

First, imagine Grace Lin is your library patron! Grace Lin! She has a Newbery Honor Medal! She is a National Book Award finalist! She’s literally one of the most passionate and smartest people in children’s literature. And she’s your library patron!  And when she comes into your library and sees one of those classic library displays of BOOKS YOUR LIBRARIAN (the curator, the decider, the person you trust) LOVES she sees … White people. As far as the eye can see: White people. This has nothing to do, by the way, about an author thinking “they should be featuring MY books!” Because now imagine that this patron is not Grace Lin, a famous children’s book author and adult, but a child. Maybe a White child, maybe a child of color. They see that same group of books dominated by White stories and White authors and White experiences (the sole exception being Simm Taback’s beautiful retelling of the Yiddish folk song about clever Joseph, who lives in a vibrant Jewish community) and they are told, explicitly: these are the stories your librarian (the curator, the decider, the person you trust) loves. These are the stories they see. These are the stories they value.

This message couldn’t be any clearer, it couldn’t be any louder, and it couldn’t be any more damaging.

Michelle Martin wrote this great piece in Kirkus – Be An Accomplice. In it, Dr. Martin asks a question I think should be posed to all librarians: “If you stay current, you know about the We Need Diverse Books movement. But has it changed what you do from day to day?”  

My fellow White librarians, I am asking you to think about your messages. I am asking you to imagine a child of color standing in front of a display filled with historical fiction that completely erases people of color. I am asking you to imagine the messages a White child gets standing in front of this display: “My story is THE story, see?”

I see this happen time and time again and I bet each of you do too.  I know it still happens in schools and public libraries all over the country. I bet you have all had a heart sinking moment of looking at a curated list compiled by a professional colleague (with the best of intentions, of course) and seeing how few books by Native creators and creators of color are on it.

For me, this sinking feeling came every year when they released the New Mexico Battle of the Books list. This is a state wide competition that encourages kids to read from a list of 20 titles, memorize details, and then compete in a quiz bowl like competition. It’s assembled by a small group of (almost entirely) school librarians and, without fail, it is a exceedingly White list. I have tried a variety of things to change this including made plenty of other nominations and specifically requested more diversity. But the White list – featuring the same small handful of Native creators and creators of color – returns every year.

On their 2016-2017 list out of 40 books, only one was by an African-American author yet two were by a white woman writing about African-American characters. The elementary list had only one book by an author of color and one book by a Native writer and the middle school list had three books by people of color – including the only book on either list by a Latinx author. Considering the population of New Mexico is 48% Latinx as of 2015 this felt like an especially glaring oversight. Similarly, we have 10% Native population and 22 federally registered tribe, yet there was only one book by a Native author on either list. All together out of 40 books, the lists featured only 5 books by Native authors and authors of color.

This is simply unacceptable in the year 2017. Honestly. I can’t think of any other way to say it. You, as a librarian, are charged with being a gatekeeper. When you make lists like this one, when you make displays like the one in Lin’s library, you are not opening the gates to everyone. You are status quo’ing and, to be frank, you’re being lazy.

“But they’re my favorites! I can’t help that they’re my favorites! I should be able to read what I want!” 

Imagine a patron comes up to you and tells you that they just finished the last Harry Hole book by Jo Nesbø and they really want some more dark Scandinavian mysteries.

“Oh sorry,” you say to them. “I really only like cozy mysteries. Ones with cats or in tea shops. I just can’t get into that dark stuff. But I just finished a great series about a quilter, let me show you.”

Can you imagine that? No, probably not. Because even if that was true, you’d understand that your reading tastes weren’t supposed to dictate their request. This moment is not about if you like Scandinavian noir. It’s about more than just YOUR taste in books.

And this exact thing is what I’m asking when I ask you to consider the lists, the displays, the booktalks you present to patrons. It’s about more than just YOUR taste in books.

Moreover: “I don’t really read books ‘like that’ so I don’t have any favorites to include or booktalk or display!” is a fundamentally racist thing to say. What do you even mean “like that”? Do you think Native creators and creators of color only write or create ONE kind of book? And what kind of book, exactly, would you imagine that is?

You really only love mysteries? Great! Do you know Attica Locke? Lamar Giles? Marcie Rendon? The Clubhouse Mysteries? You really only love romances? Super! Do you know Alisha Rai? When Dimple Met RishiWhen the Moon Was Ours? Farrah Rochon? You really only love historical fiction? Amazing! Do you know Stacey Lee? Homegoing? Margarita Engle? Tim Tingle? Shall I go on and on and on?

When you say “I don’t really read books ‘like that’ I stay in my favorite genre!” you should think carefully about what assumptions you’re making about work by Native creators and creators of color. It reveals that you think of “diverse books” as something remote, separate from “regular” books. And when you, as a librarian, as a gatekeeper, make these assumptions in your booklists, your displays, your selections – you’re passing them on to your patrons. You’re distancing and other’ing your Native patrons and patrons of color and you are sending the same message to your White patron.

I am not telling you what your “favorites” should be. I am not telling you YOU BETTER READ ____ OR ELSE! I am telling you that you owe it to your patrons to think bigger than just what you have always known, what you are most comfortable with, what you have always done.  Isn’t learning more and serving everyone a major part of what drew you to public librarianship as a career?  It certainly was for me. And I don’t take that lightly. I want to do the most for ALL my patrons and open their worlds up as much as I can. So for me, that means I’m going to make sure that my patrons are exposed to the widest range of authors and books – I am going to look BIGGER than the same White stories by the same White authors over and over. (the immediate family of an 11-13 year old White girl with a quirky name die in an accident, or maybe from cancer, and so she goes to live with her eccentric family, aunts or grandpas are best, and learns that this is her new home as she meets a loving cast of oddballs. They’re all mostly White, with a few people with “light brown” skin. I’ve read this book 10000 times. I’m so over this book.)

So, you’ve been there. You’ve looked at a booklist or a display that a colleague made – maybe that you made – and realized that you were leaving some voices and stories out, that it didn’t have the full range of experience and life that you wanted for your library and your patrons. You got that all White message.  What next?

Change it.  Change what you can, where you can.

My library stopped participating in the New Mexico Battle of the Books when my complaints (and suggestions) were met with a constant refusal to consider more and deeper diversity or to even address my concerns. Instead, I decided to create my own local program and get my school librarians on board.  It’s not perfect, heck it’s still an experiment in progress, but it’s a list that more accurately reflects the kids in our state, a list that isn’t the same tiny handful of Native creators/creators of color, a list that shows some of the best and most interesting writing in kidlit. I’m going to learn lessons as this goes. I am not going to have the same program I used to have. Some kids won’t be interested. But maybe some new ones will be. I am going to be OK with this new thing and know that at least it’s a step forward.

And I mean, come on. This is a pretty great list, right? 

Here’s a list I compiled for people signing up for our new 1000 Books Before Kindergarten program. I wanted to make them a list of books they might not have read 1000 times already (haha) or received ten copies of at their baby showers. I wanted to make a list for adults to share with kids that would allow them, together, to discover and explore the world through books. I chose high interest toddler topics (animals, trucks, counting, nature) and books about reading, writing, singing, playing, and talking. Some of these books could be considered my “favorites” but, really, they’re books I think a wide range of patrons can enjoy. Maybe even the books I don’t like as much, the books that aren’t my favorites can be someone else’s favorites.

Whenever I have a chance to share books with my patrons, with my fellow educators and librarians, I look with a critical eye at those lists, those displays, and those chances to be a gatekeeper, a trusted voice.  I think about who I am sharing mirrors and doors with and I think about all the chances I have to change a life, to help a patron feel seen, to open a new door, to help someone discover a new favorite. I am going to think about more than just me. Because that, too, is why I became a librarian.

My fellow White librarians: I challenge you to challenge yourselves. Take a hard look at your daily library service and think about what messages you’re sending – and which you are sending by virtue of omission.

We can change the message. Let’s do it.

Additional Reading

Performative Allyship and Storytime by Alec Chunn
Selecting While White: Breaking Out of the Vendor Box by Chelsea Couillard-Smith
Multicultural Children’s Literature: Where Are We? by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop

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