During the summer of 2016, SLJ and LJ reviewers were invited to take a self-directed course on diversity and cultural literacy in reviewing children’s books. SLJ reviewer and school librarian Laura Simeon shares her thoughts on her experience taking the course.
What do you get when you virtually gather a group of librarians from a wide range of backgrounds, all committed to better serving the readers of their reviews by deepening their understanding of diversity? Only a professional development course that allowed us to grow, learn, and honestly—but respectfully—discuss some of most pressing topics in children’s literature today.
All children deserve access to high-quality, respectful, diverse reading material. We who serve diverse populations see this for ourselves as we seek books that are relevant to and worthy of our readers. Meanwhile, librarians working with young people who are not fortunate enough to grow up learning about diversity firsthand often turn to books to help cultivate the cross-cultural awareness that is critical to thriving in the 21st century.
Reflecting on our course, the first thing that stands out to me is the abundant, carefully curated resource list compiled by our dedicated SLJ editors and expert guest moderators. These thought-provoking and informative articles, posts, and videos are now available to all. Never heard of intersectionality? Not sure how to evaluate a book for cultural authenticity? There’s something in the resource list to help. It’s a powerful combination of general background and subject specific information.
My second takeaway is less tangible: once you’ve seen something from a fresh perspective, you can never “un-see” it. The awareness becomes a part of you. We’re all inclined to be more sensitive to issues that affect us personally, and it can be uncomfortable to contemplate all that we routinely miss, even (especially!) with the best of intentions. The course gave us context and vocabulary. Context helped us notice more and place what we saw in a meaningful perspective; vocabulary gave us the language to talk productively about this new understanding.
As we engaged in discussion, it became clear despite our shared purpose, misunderstandings occasionally cropped up simply because our individual frames of reference were so varied. This course taught me how essential it is that, when we discuss diversity in book reviews, we strive to be clear about things that are problematic or praiseworthy. Clarity means not assuming that every reader of your review will understand why something is an issue or worthy of note. Spelling out your reasons is difficult given our space constraints, but no less than the author, librarian, and young reader deserve.
We came to the course motivated to learn for our own reasons. We left enriched by what we shared. If you think it sounds like a great experience, you are right and should absolutely sign up next time! If you don’t think you need to learn about diversity, I would venture to say that you are even more in need of this experience. What you learn and how much you enjoy the process might be a revelation.