The “Reading in Color” program reflects the lives of children from underrepresented communities

Editor’s note: This is the fifth story in our ongoing series that helps people immerse themselves in neighborhoods by visiting small free libraries and discovering the community building power of these book boxes. Other installments featured libraries in Rondo, Linden hills, Macalester Groveland and North end of St. Paul.

I don’t remember what I was reading when I learned of the existence of Small free library (LFL) organization Impact Program in the fall of 2020. But it convinced me to apply on behalf of my school, the First College Academy (ECA) at Brooklyn Center, an alternative high school located in the same building as our school district’s daycare program. I clearly remember being turned down, though. Instead, they wrote: “We would like to bring you our brand new initiative, Read in color.” We would only be the second participants in the program, nationwide!

The news surprised me. We would get a big new red box and stand for free, worth about $500. To kick off our box opening, the Little Free Library organization gave us a box full of new books written by people of color and centered on people of color and their stories. Then they fed our library every three months for a year with boxes of high-quality books for children, intermediate readers, young adults and adults – all, again, by POC authors and featuring people of color.

Being a steward at Little Free Library allowed me to be part of a community of book lovers, and that made me happy, but being part of such a robust and inclusive initiative showed me that I would something that mattered.

I have been an English teacher for 19 years. I have mainly taught in schools with a majority of POC students. When I moved away from these communities, I was always reminded. I learned a lot about my power as a white cisgender woman, how I can use that power to harm or heal. Our Color Read box is a way for me to help others heal.

Long before I thought of a small free library or had one, I had classroom libraries. Somewhere during professional development sessions on literacy, I was introduced Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s writing “Mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors», appeared in Perspectives: Choosing books for our classrooms. “When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how devalued they are in the society they are a part of” , she asks. I didn’t want to teach that lesson anymore.

Once I understood, I applied Bishop’s concept that books are mirrors. Readers, especially children and young adults – who are constantly forming and refining their identities – deserve to have books that reflect the strength, intelligence, creativity, beauty, resilience and subtitles of cultures they identify with, whether African, Asian, Black, LGBT, Indigenous, Latino, something else and/or a mixture of several. In my class and my program, the children would see themselves.

I received the enthusiastic support of Early College Academy trustees and staff for the establishment and opening ceremony of the ECA Little Free Library. Once the authorities deemed it unsafe to dig a hole in the “front yard” of our school, my principal, Dr Constance Robinson, allowed me to be creative. I’ve seen on the LFL website that others have used huge planters when digging wasn’t their best option. When I found the right box on Craigslist, Dr. Robinson handed me the credit card. Then I bought bags of rocks and soil from the landscape section of Home Depot. Then our head caretaker, Dave Paulson, attached the bracket to the LFL, anchored the bracket to the planter with rocks, and filled it with soil. He did most of that work outdoors in January.

Like a lot of COVID things, we zoomed in on the opening ceremony, so it lacked a little sparkle. But Dr. Carly Baker, the Superintendent of Central Brooklyn Community Schools, attended to show his support. In the spring, Dr. Robinson planted hostas.

As an official steward now, I have immersed myself in the LFL community. I joined a Action book club, which I heard about in an LFL email. Each group selects and reads a book, then creates a project around an issue they see in the book. I also regularly attended the new series launched by the community, Unbound, a Zoom meeting where attendees discuss all things literacy and LFL. So far, the series has had 21 episodes and has been home to honorable authors, creative stewards, and fierce advocates for literacy justice. Each episode centers around thoughtful topics, including my favorite: “Kindness is not undone.”

The idea of ​​having a box at home kept coming back. Then, somewhere in the spring of 2021, it hit me: a the Windows box. I had already started what could easily be considered a box of “mirrors,” but how did that address the reality that majority white readers tend to read only about their own species?

“Children from dominant social groups…need books that will help them understand the multicultural nature of the world in which they live, and their place as a member of one group, and their connection to all others. humans”, underlines Sims-Bishop, a emeritus professor of education at Ohio State University.

I live in a predominantly white neighborhood in south Minneapolis, on a block with a K-8 public school and a dozen white kids under 10. Also, I myself had two little white boys to raise. For this book box that would be visited primarily by white people, I could – and should – keep the same books that I received in my official color reading box at school, the same books that I kept stored in my classroom and in our school library.

Within days, I had found a miniature cherry-red, four-shelf London telephone booth bookcase on Craigslist. Perfect, it was full of windows! But it was only almost perfect because it was designed for indoor use.

I designed and ordered “Mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors” decals with We need miscellaneous booksan organization I had heard of during my Masters of Fine Arts program in writing for children and teenagers at Hamline University. I have dedicated shelves for children’s, college, young adult, and adult books. Then I sprayed it liberally with a winter concoction from the local hardware store. To my regret, the box did not last a year. But it left a lasting impression.

We had tons of visitors and compliments. Books were flying from our shelves. Fortunately, I live close to a local bookstore, The Irreverent Bookworm. After sorting through piles of good quality books from home and school that I no longer needed, I consigned them and received nearly $80. I used the money to buy new Read in Color books. And as a steward and active member of the LFL community, I’m open to book giveaways and ideas on how to store and maintain my boxes of books without spending a fortune.

Also, the community was the answer to my totally weathered “windows” box. Last winter, the Little Free Library organization hosted a national Zoom trivia night. I was matched with a couple from Ohio (I believe). To our amazement and delight, we won the two-hour Q&A contest and the prize was a brand new Read in Color library. Since I already had this special LFL, I had no problem giving the box to the couple. When I asked if I could get a discount on a box of my own as a prize, Little Free Library surprised me once again. They gave me a very big new box for the winter!

I painted it cherry red and put my custom stickers on it.

Maybe the kids in my school and in my neighborhood will one day remember my little free library when they all grow up, but maybe not. It does not matter. What matters is that with the help of LFL, I try to make available “enough books that can serve as both mirrors and windows for all our children”, as Sims Bishop writes. , so “that they see that we can celebrate both our differences and our similarities because together they are what make us all human beings.

Indeed, thanks to the small free libraries, I’ve seen more celebrations, more eyes open to POC stories. Many white mothers in my neighborhood have stopped to select books for their children that center characters of color and have pledged to support Read in Color through intentional book selection. I saw POCs and multiracial families stop by our box and smile. “Yes, I take any book,” I say to passers-by. “However, I am the curator of these books that tell the stories of all people, all cultures and all experiences. I try to help decentralize the white narrative.

At school, the little ones who attend daycare and their parents have chosen so many books that the library has been replenished three times in one year with new books. The teenagers I teach like to see themselves in books. Often they begin by referring to a novel as The hate you give by Angie Thomas and just say, “I want to read another book like this.” All of my students now have more books featuring people like them, and all of them are books they can keep. Usually, when I offer them, they take two!

I have seen my students and others see books as a chance to open up, reflect and slip into a better world through this Read in Color initiative. As the initiative grows and gains traction in our communities, I hope many more children and young adults will participate in creating a more inclusive and representative catalog of the stories we share.

Top photo (left to right): Dr. Constance Robinson, Principal, Early College Academy; student Kaya Law; and Katie Kunz, Little Free Library Steward, pose in front of their box of Read in Color books. All photos by author.

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