The Power of Literature: An Interview with Miranda Paul

Educators frequently help children establish pride in their heritage and understand diversity by introducing them to books with cultural content (Harven and Gordon-Biddle 2016; Tunnell et al. 2012). While offering books from diverse ethnicities and races is a starting point for helping students to be culturally competent, culture and diversity reflect more than just race and ethnicities. Cultural competency is a skill that requires objectively assessing the complex topics that impact our diverse world. To be culturally competent, one must understand the meaning of a culture. According to Garrick Bailey and James Peoples, a culture is a “shared, socially learned knowledge and patterns of behaviors of some human group” (2013, 22). Within each culture, there are subcultures with which one may choose to self-identify. Subcultures can reflect characteristics, such as regions within a country, ancestry, religious associations, and sexual orientation. One individual may simultaneously belong to multiple cultures and subcultures. Regardless of the cultures or subcultures that one belongs to, the dynamics that outline the behaviors of each group are socially learned and are thought of as norms (Bailey and Peoples 2013).

We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) is a nonprofit organization that promotes the publication of literature that represents all youth and the cultures to which they may belong. For this reason the organization offers a holistic definition of diversity: “We recognize all diverse experiences, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, Native, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.” The organization also acknowledges that disabilities can include: mental illness and social, physical, sensory, cognitive, intellectual, and developmental disabilities (http://weneeddiversebooks.org/mission-statement/). This comprehensive definition of diversity acknowledges the complexities that youth must learn to navigate as culturally competent citizens.

The Interview

I thrive on learning from people who are agents of change. After reading the definition of diversity provided by WNDB, I knew that I wanted to connect with one of the co-founders to understand their vision of how school librarians can be included in their mission. To say that I was excited when award-winning children’s author Miranda Paul agreed to answer my questions is an understatement. I am happy to be able to share what I learned from her.

Q: How did you become involved in We Need Diverse Books?

A: A number of us were chatting on Twitter with a diversity hashtag, and then the discussion went offline and members of the group came up with the idea to do a three-day campaign. That was exhausting but exhilarating. Since that happened in 2014, we've formed an actual 501c3 nonprofit. I served on the executive committee for over a year and I am now the chair of the mentorship program.

Q: What are you passionate about?

A: Books, kids (especially my own), education, writing, nature, the environment, and humanitarian issues. I also like cats, chocolate, and mango smoothies. But that's beside the point.

Q: How does what you are passionate about relate to your involvement in We Need Diverse Books?

A: Since I'm the co-founder and current co-chair of the We Need Diverse Books Mentorship Program, it's a good combination of things I love. The program helps match aspiring children's book authors and illustrators with established and experienced professionals. Some of the mentees have already gone on to secure their own book contracts. Though they aren't my mentees, my time volunteering has led to helping them learn, grow, and produce more diverse books in which children will see themselves reflected.

Q: What is your favorite children’s or young adult book with diverse characters?

A: Choosing one is impossible. I just can't do it. I don't know if it's a young adult book or not, but when I was in my late teens I read, In the Time of Butterflies by Julia Alvarez and it has always stuck with me. In college, I read Pay It Forward (by Catherine Ryan Hyde), and it was the first time I'd read about an interracial couple. And then Hollywood released the movie and changed the race of the character so they were both white. Being in an interracial relationship at the time—and we're now going on fifteen years together—it infuriated me, but also opened my eyes to how others saw us. Of course, now I try to read at least one novel or chapter book a week. Some of the picture books I've enjoyed with my own children are Tiger in My Soup by Kashmira Sheth, The Other Side, by Jacqueline Woodson, My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay by Cari Best and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, and Grace for President by Kelly DiPucchio and LeUyen Pham. I also put up a small list of diverse picture books on my blog a couple of years ago. It's not compete by any means, but it's a start if people are looking: http://mirandapaulbooks.blogspot.com/2014/05/list-of-diverse-picture-books.html. There are so many I love!

Q: Why are they your favorite books and how can the books be used to help youth understand diversity?

A: I think some of my favorite diverse books feature diverse characters. But the theme, topic, or takeaway isn’t necessarily centered around the "issue" of diversity. I think that we need both kinds of books: the ones that grapple with issues surrounding race, gender, religion, and disability, etc., but also the ones that don't "other" diverse characters, places, or languages. Books that focus on a common experience or emotion help children understand diversity. Because, let's be honest, children who are different/diverse/minority already understand and yearn for diversity. We need all children (and, more often, grown-ups) to understand that we're all more alike than different, and that differences are to be celebrated and talked about. We need boys to understand that girls aren't a different species, and that people with another skin color have most things in common with them.

Q: How do you think school librarians can help with promoting an understanding of diversity in society?

A: Books help us build empathy and gain a better understanding of diversity in society (among other skills and knowledge). Therefore, school librarians have the opportunity and the responsibility to be champions of understanding in this area. How? I'd suggest asking questions. Which books do they face out? Are diverse books incorporated into everyday lessons and themes, or only singled out for special holidays? Is their collection diverse enough? Are they encouraging kids to read books with characters outside their gender or culture? Are they giving kids diverse books that mirror or reflect their own contemporary culture or cultures? Are they communicating with teachers about new diverse books? Are they inviting diverse authors and illustrators to visit their schools? If they have author posters, are they including diverse authors and titles on those "marketing" materials and decorations in the physical space? Are they being vocal advocates at staff meetings about the importance of inclusion? I could go on with questions and ideas for how school librarians can help. I also think it's important for all librarians to stay informed on the topics and issues, and even attend a diversity training so one can be more aware of one's own privilege, biases, and how better to assess and review books.

Conclusion

I am truly thankful that Ms. Paul took the time to share her thoughts about promoting diversity with books. Her comments reminded me that sometimes it can be easy to dismiss diversity as simply an issue of race and ethnicity. However, there are the differences that we can not see on the surface that make the world a melting pot. It is possible for cultural norms to cause groups to shun differences. At times, differences cause people to fear each other rather than to seek understanding.

Providing diverse books is a way for school librarians to help children develop compassion and an appreciation for uniqueness in a global society. Children need to be culturally competent and understand that the environments in which they may live often do not reflect society as a whole. There is so much in the world that divides us today. Each day, children awake to a world that is in the midst of war. They witness events that promote hateful speech, rhetoric, and actions that are directed at anyone that is perceived as the “other.” Often these behaviors are emulated by children because their upbringing suggests that it is acceptable to reject anything that is not familiar. This is why an educational environment that incorporates multiculturalism can make a difference (Morgan 2009; Suh and Samuel 2011).

One of my biggest takeaways from this interview was the reinforcement of the knowledge that authors appreciate the role of librarians in schools. Indeed, school librarians have the critical responsibility of preparing youth to be catalysts for positive social transformations. Library programming that incorporates culturally relevant books can be life-changing. Research indicates that literature can modify the perceptions that youth have about the world they live in (Alexander and Morton 2007; Sarraj, et al. 2015). As James Baldwin suggested “...literature is indispensable to the world… The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way a person looks at reality, then you can change it” (Watkins 1979, 37). How amazing are librarians? We have the power to change the world!

 

Works Cited

Alexander, Linda B., and Mary Lou Morton. "Multicultural Cinderella: A Collaborative Project in an Elementary School." School Libraries Worldwide 13, no. 2 (2007): 32-45.

Bailey, Garrick, and James Peoples. Essentials of Cultural Anthropology. Wadsworth, 2013.

Harven, Aletha M., and Kimberly A. Gordon-Biddle. "Critical Literacy and Multicultural Literature: Pedagogical Strategies for the Everyday Classroom." In Social Justice Instruction, edited by Rosemary Papa, Danielle M. Eadens, and Daniel W. Eadens, 161-169. Springer International, 2016.

Morgan, Hani. "Using Read-Alouds with Culturally Sensitive Children’s Books: A Strategy that Can Lead to Tolerance and Improved Reading Skills." Reading Improvement 46, no. 1 (2009): 3-8.

Sarraj, Huda, Konabe Bene, Jiaqi Li, and Hansel Burley. "Raising Cultural Awareness of Fifth-Grade Students through Multicultural Education: An Action Research Study." Multicultural Education 22, no. 2 (2015): 39-45.

Suh, Bernadyn K., and Francis A. Samuel. "The Value of Multiculturalism in a Global Village: In the Context of Teaching Children's Literature." New England Reading Association Journal 47, no. 1 (2011): 1-10, 102.

Tunnell, Michael O., James S. Jacobs, Terrell A. Young, and Gregory Bryan. Children's Literature, Briefly. Pearson, 2012.

Watkins, Mel. “James Baldwin Writing and Talking.” New York Times Book Review (September 23, 1979): 3, 36-37.

About the Author

Daniella Smith, MLIS, PhD, is an associate professor of information science at the University of North Texas, Denton. She received her doctoral degree from the School of Information in the College of Communication and Information at Florida State University, Tallahassee. Smith has been a classroom teacher on multiple levels and a school librarian in elementary and middle schools. She is an ALA Councilor at large and writes for the AASL Knowledge Quest blog at http://knowledgequest.aasl.org/author/dsmith/. Her email address is Daniella.Smith@unt.edu.

MLA Citation Smith, Daniella. "The Power of Literature: An Interview with Miranda Paul." School Library Connection, May 2017, schoollibraryconnection.com/Home/Display/2073501.

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