The impact of story in children’s lives is powerful. Children learn how to experience the world through story. They form ideas about themselves and other people and their relationships. They learn to dream of possible futures. The books we read with our children can set the path for their own self-worth as well as how they see others.
With so much on the line, our children deserve stories that represent the depth and breadth of our diverse world. They deserve books that honor each and every one of them. The reality is that while there are many picture books with diverse themes and characters, marginalized groups are seriously underrepresented . Stereotypical and biased representations still occur. How do we deal with the complications of this reality when we share books with children?
When children sit in traditional fashion quietly listening as a story is read, it is the adult who has control. Think of the authority you carry as the reader and the message that could send to a child who might be underrepresented or misrepresented in the story, and is being asked to sit quietly as you read. What can you do? Find meaning together with your students by encouraging conversation around story. Read with children instead of to children.
Here are some suggestions drawn from a webinar presentation by Sarah Hannah Gómez and Megan Dowd Lambert using the Whole Book Approach.
• Ask open-ended questions as you read; for example, “What do you see happening on this page?” Even the youngest children can read the pictures. So, with this one question, you are focusing attention on the visual and sending the message that you welcome different interpretations.
• Ask for evidence-based answers. “What do you see that makes you say that?” This approach supports the facts and pushes back against bias and stereotypes. It supports critical thinking skills and opens the door to honest dialogue.
• Paraphrase responses. This helps children to feel heard, and affirms that their ideas matter. Link comments to send the message that together we are finding the meaning in this story.
• Be mindful of power dynamics within the group. Children of marginalized identities, especially, need to know that their voice counts. Strive to hold space for everyone in the conversation.
• Take part in the dialogue. Share your feelings about diversity and representation. Use the words “fair” and “unfair” to address examples of stereotypes or exclusion. If it is useful to the discussion, it is okay to point out racial differences in the characters. Research has shown that embracing a philosophy of “colorblindness” to avoid addressing race doesn’t work in reducing bias or increasing equity.
• Don’t push an agenda. Ask children to imagine being part of the story, being friends with characters in the book, and ask what they might do in a similar situation. In that way you are asking them to go deeper and reflect on their individual feelings and ideas.
• Make storytime conversations routine. When storytime conversation is routine, dialogue emerges naturally. If you are feeling the constraints of time, remember that it is not necessary to “unpack” every page in a book. Follow the interests of your students. Re-read at another time and/or highlight the book on a shelf for one-on-one reading and conversation.
Storytime is democratized when the adult is no longer the gatekeeper of ideas but, instead, facilitates the child’s participation by showing how to critically engage with the story. When we share books with diverse themes and characters and engage children in open, honest dialogue, we are demonstrating fairness, equality, respect, sensitivity and understanding. We are making storytime a meaningful, transformative experience for children and adults.