Friday, October 24, 2014

On the fine art (& frustration) of crafting a diverse book list for teenagers

Over the past few years, as I've worked on the wish list for the annual Ballou High School library book fair, I've spent a lot of time thinking about diversity in teen books. In some ways, the process has been like grieving; first there was denial, ("where are all the mysteries and romance and thrillers with African American protagonists?"), then anger, ("I can not believe how hard it is to find books for teenagers with African American kids on the covers!!"), then bargaining, ("what do I have to do to find these dang books?!"), then depression, ("this so unfair and I can't stand it"), and then acceptance ("this is the world we're living in and I just have to work with it").

Talk about a learning experience.

The book list does have a lot of diverse books on it because I spend all year watching for every single title that comes up in Booklist or the catalogs or on twitter or the blogs I follow that includes mention of "strong diverse characters". It never ends, finding these books. I can never stop looking for them or watching for them.

Right now I have about a dozen books in a list that are from the spring 2015 catalogs that won't go on the wish list until next year. I also pull from the ALA Quick Picks list and from the Printz and other awards lists and Ballou's super librarian, Melissa Jackson, always has some books they are looking for that go on the list but mostly, I am on the hunt all the time. I look for adult crossover titles, especially biographies, that will be of interest to high school students at Ballou and any history or science titles that might include have particular interest to African American teens.

There are also general nonfiction titles like cookbooks and wildlife and science (plastic in the ocean! extinction! genealogy! nail art) but give me a novel about a couple of African American teenagers who solve crime or fall in love or, yes, battle vampires, and I AM ALL OVER IT.

Because I want the students at Ballou to read the same kind of fun books I read as a teenager. I want them to see themselves in the books they read; I want them to find themselves in the books they read. I want them to see lives that could be theirs or look like theirs. I don't want them to feel like they are in the outside looking in when they are reading and I think that happens when all the characters are blonde haired and blue-eyed and rich and you are none of those things.

So I look all year long and I add to the list all year long and I hope for the best all year long. Certainly some of the books on the list have mostly (and maybe all) Caucasian characters because they are still good, fun, popular books that I know all teen readers want and will enjoy. But they can't be all the books on the list; they can't be everything. More importantly, they should never be everything.

Take a look at the wish list for Ballou and tell us what you think. If you know of some books that should be on the list next time, let us know. And yeah, if you want to help out a worthy school then please buy a book or two and send them along to Washington DC, where I promise they will be very much appreciated.

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