There have been many moments in the past few years of my life that have helped me to examine my own prejudices and privileges. I think back on my worldview back in my teens and early twenties and I am ashamed of myself for how I perceived people who were different from me. So I'm currently trying to remove my blinders and shed the cloak of white privilege that has prevented me from understanding the added opportunities I've been granted in my life simply because I'm white.
What is the biggest thing that has helped me to make this leap? Reading.
As a white woman in my mid-thirties, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I even became aware of my own privilege. That whiteness is the default of our society never even occurred to me. Movements like #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #BlackLivesMatter are helping to shift my thinking and to be more aware of my own biases and privilege. But more importantly, these conversations aren’t just making me aware, they’re also making me speak up and show that I’m willing to be part of a much-needed paradigm shift that has yet to occur. The current paradigm is that whiteness is implied -- the paradigm that every encounter we experience in books, movies, or historical documents should be seen as white unless explicitly noted. I want to be part of the movement to help change that.
And so here is a list of books that has helped me see the world in more vivid color.
After Tupac and D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson
Many of you might be surprised to see that Woodson’s enchanting Brown Girl Dreamingwas replaced on this list in favor of After Tupac and D Foster, but this is the book that started me on the path of varying the colors of my whitewashed world. It's amazing how beautiful a novel can be where not much happens. This reading experience was all about just sitting with a group of really loveable characters that you just wanted to hang with all day long. But here’s what makes After Tupac and D Foster so extraordinary to me: this was the first book I ever read about black characters doing normal, everyday things. Before this, the only books I ever read where the main characters were African American were in the pages of middle grade historical fiction or edgy urban YA. So thanks to movements like #WeNeedDiverseBooks, I hope we will see many more books like After Tupac and D Foster lining the shelves of bookstores and libraries.
The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex
If Woodson’s aforementioned novel was the first book I experienced where a person of color was the main character in a modern-day realistic fiction story, Rex’s novel was the first time I experienced a person of color as the heroine of a science fiction/fantasy world. It remains, to this day, one of my favorite books of all time and I hope we start to see more Gratuity Tuccis of the children’s literature world because she is funny, fierce, and fabulous.
When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds
Jason Reynolds has written a gentle story about a young man who always wants to do right by his family and friends. Ali's tenderness towards his mom and sister and even his mostly absent father is not only touching, it is a desperately needed narrative for kids and young adults -- as both a mirror and a window. It is a read alike for those seeking the modern, character-driven narrative of Woodson’s After Tupac and D Foster. Readers are sure to want to keep sitting on the stoop with Ali, Noodles, and Needles long after the last page is turned.
X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shibazz & Kekla Magoon
X is a fictionalized portrayal of a young Malcolm X's life, co-written by Kekla Magoon and Malcolm's daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz. As I was reading X, there were many occasions when I had to put the book down to process and contemplate what I had just read. There is scene with Malcolm's teacher at the end of chapter 3 that shook me to my core. We are taught the power of the N word from a very young age. It is a word so powerful it can no longer be spoken. But it wasn't until the aftermath of the moment when Malcolm is called that horrific word by his teacher that I could fully internalize its power. X is a profound novel. It is one that can change hearts and minds. I know it did mine.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz
I grew up being taught that homosexuality was wrong. And while I have whole-heartedly come to change my views over the years, it wasn’t until recently that same-sex displays of affection no longer made me uncomfortable. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe was a novel that helped me get over that hurdle. It is a beautiful, tender look into the complexities of love.
Viva Frida by Yuyi Morales
Though Viva Frida has few words, it is a living, breathing poem. But poetry doesn't always have to come in words. Sometimes poetry speaks in pictures, movement, music, or all of these things at once. Viva Frida is an incredibly unique picture book in that its illustrations are photographs of colorful 3-dimensional puppets. And while there are few words, it is also written in both English and Spanish. Don’t pick up Viva Frida expecting a picture book biography. It is much deeper and more emotional than that. It is a beautiful, cultural celebration of Kahlo’s life using colorful illustrations and scant words.
Enchanted Air by Margarita Engle
I was completely touched and blown away by this sensitive, thoughtful look inside the conflicted experience of growing up as a Cuban-American during the beginning of the Cold War. Engle's memories of Cuba are beautiful, longing, and truly embody the concept of wanderlust. I had never had a desire to ever visit Cuba before reading Engle’s enchanting memoir, but now I have added this once verboten country to my travel bucket list.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
The fact that this is my first and only YA novel I’ve read about a Native American teen speaks to the need for more diverse books. Chris Crutcher said it best about this book: "I know Sherman Alexie is on his game when I'm reading his book, laughing my a** off while my heart is breaking." Junior’s story is so irreverent and un-PC, but it’s also heartwarming and humorous. Junior is such a sweet, likable character and Alexie has managed to find a way to make us want to be friends with him.
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
A book about basketball, love, siblings, and family, Kwame Alexander has not only mastered the novel in verse format, he has made it his own. What I love so much about Kwame’s work is that he has single-handedly made it cool for kids to be lovers of words and language. As someone who is always telling my students the power of words, Kwame Alexander is showing it to them.
All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
Told in dual perspectives, All American Boys is a book about Rashad, a black teen boy who is brutalized by a police officer for thinking he stole a bag of chips at a local convenience store. The event is witnessed by Quinn, Rashad’s white classmate, who also considers the officer in question a father figure. It is an amalgamation of all the stories of racial tensions that have been brewing over the past few years and shows the impact that social media is having on these conversations. It's going to be a difficult book for a lot of people to read because it will force them to push the mirror out of their face and begin looking through a window they have not tried or even wanted to look through before.
Beth Shaum is an 8th grade English teacher in Allen Park, Michigan. She is working to make sure her classroom library provides diverse books for all kinds of students. She hopes that you’ll recommend some to her. You can find her on Twitter @BethShaum or on one of her two blogs: A Foodie Bibliophile in Wanderlust and Use Your Outside Voice.