A first grader reaches for a book on the shelf in her classroom at a mid-sized city school in New York’s Hudson Valley. She finds herself in that sweet developmental spot when reading fluency is building, and sounding out words today takes less time than it did yesterday. She has already devoured all of Junie B. Jones and moved onto Cam Jansen, but is starting to tire of characters that mostly sound and look alike. The only other series books she sees on her classroom shelves feature either white characters or animals that talk. She keeps wondering when she’ll see characters of different races, ethnicities, and cultures—when she’ll see a character that looks like her.
In this young girl’s classroom—and arguably, most first-grade classrooms across the United States—there are few, if any, transitional chapter series books that feature characters of color. There is something glaringly wrong with this picture.
Mirrors and Windows
Scholars suggest that books provide mirrors of and windows into the world for young readers (see Bishop, 1990; Smolkin & Young, 2011; Tschida, Ryan, & Ticknor, 2014; Lifshitz, 2016). This research-based knowledge begs the following question: how can books that primarily reflect the experience of whiteness be an accurate window or mirror for all of the young children who read them? They cannot provide accurate windows and mirrors for any children who read them: they provide few, if any, mirrors for children of color, and few windows for children who identify as white Instead, they collectively reinforce a whiteness discourse, and in so doing, mute any possibility for voices of color.
The lack of diversity and multiculturalism in children’s literature is not a new topic of educational research; indeed, there exists a body of literature examining topics of diversity in children’s books that extends several decades (see Sims, 1983; Rogers & Christin, 2007). However, little research on diversity in children’s literature has focused on the transitional chapter book format, which provides children a necessary stepping-stone toward independent reading.
Transitional Chapter Series Books
Transitional chapter books provide a format with particularly strong gravitational pull for early readers as they develop reading fluency. Resulting from the growing ability to decode words more accurately at an appropriate pace, fluency typically develops somewhere between kindergarten and second grade. At this stage in their development, readers use less cognitive energy on decoding, or sounding out, what they are reading, thus freeing up more space and energy for comprehending what they are reading. In other words, the less brain power a reader at this stage uses on sounding words out, the more they have to use on actually understanding what is being said in the text.
With a predictable formula consisting of large print; interspersed black-and-white, full-page illustrations; likable characters; and age-appropriate, easy-to-follow plot lines, transitional chapter books are likely to exist in every library, bookstore, and school. The ones published in series are particularly exciting to K-2 readers, who can’t wait to read ‘real’ books and often digest them one after the other as their confidence and ability grow (McGill-Franzen, 2009).
As readers develop the ability to read more independently, they also rapidly develop as social beings. Characters that become familiar across series books give readers a chance to connect and identify (McGill-Franzen, 2009). Series books motivate readers to keep reading, and help build stamina for young children (Ross, 1995). Walk into a first-grade classroom in Anytown, USA, and you are bound to see series books on the library shelves.
So What’s Wrong with Junie B.?
Did you ever read series books? For me, it was Ramona, Babysitters Club, and Sweet Valley High. As a white girl growing up in a mostly white farming town, I didn’t have to work very hard to see myself in the pages of those books. Their present-day contemporaries—the aforementioned Junie B. Joneses, Magic Treehouses, and Ivy & Beans of the classroom shelf—are quite similar. How has that not changed, nearly forty years later?
I’m not trying to diminish the popularity or potential impact of series like Junie B. Jones—I know plenty of kids who love her like I loved Ramona. But I am wondering out loud about the ways in which series books like Junie are subtly dictating the terms of what it’s like to be a ‘typical’ kid, aged 5-8—and getting it wildly wrong, especially for anyone who does not identify as ‘white.’
Curious to understand how deep the whiteness in transitional chapter series books really goes, my colleague, Caroline Hopenwasser, and two undergraduate teacher candidates, Kimberly Roman and Alexa Reina, and I spent time this past summer doing a content analysis of transitional chapter series books available to the first grader mentioned earlier in this post. We started by locating books in the transitional chapter book format in her classroom library, school library, public library, and local bookstore.
We are still analyzing our results, but below is a table showing the racial breakdown of the 1,251 books we found, as compared to the school population. We used these numbers as a place to initiate our inquiry about representations of race in the transitional chapter series books available to students in the school. I should note that I am not arguing here that a classroom library (or public library or bookstore, for that matter) should match the racial, ethnic, or cultural breakdown of its corresponding school or town population; however, I am arguing that on no shelf should a collection of books be so white.
School Population and Equity Audit Percentages
|Race (categories designated by school)||School Population||Equity Audit Categories||Bookstore||Public Library||School Library||Classroom Library|
|African American||15%||African American||1%||1%||3%||0%|
Note. School population categories and percentages retrieved from school district website. Citation omitted to protect anonymity of study participants.
The classroom and school libraries contained collections of transitional chapter books that featured almost entirely white characters—94% and 93%, respectively. Although the bookstore and public library collections had fewer books featuring white characters, they did not have many more books featuring characters of color. Instead, we found that both sites contained significant percentages of books, 15% at the bookstore and 23% at the public library, that featured animal characters. Therefore, at all sites, the collections of books were overwhelmingly white.
At this all-important stage in a reader’s development, children are able to comprehend more complex ideas and topics than in easy picture books. If the texts they encounter—particularly in the popular transitional chapter book format—mostly feature white characters, then whiteness discourse is repeatedly reinforced with little to no effort. This is problematic on a variety of levels, but in two ways in particular that require immediate attention: 1) children of color do not see themselves, and 2) white children do not see children of color.
Repairing Windows and Unfogging Mirrors
Many people are waking up to the pervasiveness of whiteness and white supremacist discourse after the recent presidential election. Educators everywhere are asking, what can we do? While I have a lot of questions, too, one thing I know for sure: we must talk and think and share and collaborate. What follows are a few ideas for how to get started if you haven’t already.
Do an equity audit by taking stock of your educational environment and recognizing areas of inequity:
- take a look at the books in your library, and the materials with which you teach.
- ask questions such as, Whose voices are privileged? Whose voices are silenced? For whom are the texts written? What is not being said? What is being amplified? What is being forgotten? Do all roads lead to whiteness?
- acquire and assign more texts that privilege voices of color if you don’t already do so—that tell history from multiple perspectives.
But to be clear: identifying inequity in classrooms and schools and updating assignments and libraries with books that feature characters of color is hardly enough, and cannot remain merely a symbolic act. There is an urgent need to recognize whiteness as an inaccurate blueprint against which human experience is often measured, whether in real life or in literature, and an even more urgent need to actively work to change it in our classrooms. There should not be an instance in which, more than 60 years after Brown vs. Board of Ed, you walk into a 1st-grade classroom and see mostly books about white children; however, this reality remains the norm. Let’s actively work to change it—not tomorrow or next year, but today.
Bishop, R. S. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives, 6(3), ix–xi.
Gangi, J. M. (2008). The Unbearable Whiteness of Literacy Instruction: Realizing the
Implications of the Proficient Reader Research. Multicultural Review, 17(1).
Lifshitz, J. (2016). Curating empathy: How LGBT-friendly libraries can create safe spaces, foster understanding, and lift a burden off our children. Literacy Today, 33(6), 24–26.
McGill-Franzen, A. (2009). Series books for young readers: Seeking reading pleasure and developing reading competence. In Children’s Literature in the Reading Program: An Invitation to Read (pp. 57–65). International Reading Association.
Rogers, R., & Christian, J. (2007). ‘What could I say?’A critical discourse analysis of the
construction of race in children’s literature. Race Ethnicity and Education, 10(1), 21-46.
Ross, C. S. (1995). “If they read Nancy Drew, so what?”: Series book readers talk back. Library & Information Science Research, 17(3), 201–236.
Sims, R. (1983). What has happened to the ‘all-white’ world of children’s books?. The Phi Delta Kappan, 64(9), 650-653.
Smolkin, L. B., & Young, C. A. (2011). Missing mirrors, missing windows: Children’s literature textbooks and LGBT topics. Language Arts, 88(3), 217–225.
Tschida, C. M., Ryan, C. L., & Ticknor, A. S. (2014). Building on windows and mirrors:
Encouraging the disruption of “single stories” through children’s literature. Journal of Children’s Literature, 40(1), 28.
Kiersten Greene is an Assistant Professor of Literacy Education in the Department of Teaching & Learning of the State University of New York at New Paltz. She earned her PhD in Urban Education at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and her MSEd in Early Childhood and Elementary Education at Bank Street College of Education. Interested in bridging the gap between policy and practice in K-12 schooling, Kiersten’s scholarship is rooted in making sense of how the 21st century classroom experience is both shaping and being shaped by digital communication. Previously, Kiersten was a teacher and literacy coach at a public elementary school in New York City. She is an Apple Teacher, and in 2015, was named an Apple Distinguished Educator.