We Need Diverse Books, Teaching for Change

“Normal Reading”: Feature Report
Full recording of June 19 program
Why Teaching for Change? Why Not Rush Revere?
Partial Transcript (with more to come) of June 19 program

“Normal” Reading

Joanne Rowling was not always a hugely famous author of books and movies. And when her first Harry Potter book was prepared for publication, she used her initials, “J.K.,” instead of her given name, because her publisher knew boys were less likely to read a book written by a woman. In addition, the author has explained that she wrote Harry, not Hermoine, as the main character for the same fact of mainstream publishing and educational life: Girls are expected and encouraged to read books about boys, but rarely the other way around. “Normal” books, in other words, are written by and about men; with rare exception, books written by and about females are set aside as optional girls’ literature.

A similar set of expectations apply to mainstream publishing in regard to race and to sexual preference: Occasional titles by and about persons of color are now included on reading lists for diversity’s sake, and a rare book about a queer person might appear in a curriculum, if it can survive challenges. But mainstream, required, encouraged reading – the “normal” stuff – is still about straight, white people, usually boys, with no physical or mental disabilities.

Distorted Worldviews

This affects the world views of all children and particularly impacts the formation of identity for those children who still rarely, if ever see themselves reflected in youth literature.

“American children are growing up with a distorted sense of reality: white children see themselves reflected endlessly” in children’s books, says author and activist Children’s author Zetta Elliott, “whereas children of color rarely see themselves at all.”

Since 1985 the Cooperative Children’s Book Council has been reviewing and documenting the numbers of books published in the United States for children each year and noting which ones were written and/or illustrated by African Americans. They now track other non-white authors and characters. Most recent statistics found that nearly 95% of books published for children each year are still by and about white people.

Attempting to address this situation, Teaching for Change shares the work of authors of color, through its programs and bookstore, and highlights children’s books illustrating diverse people and lifestyles. Teaching for Change authors and staff members have participated in the Education Town Hall numerous times.

The June 19 edition focuses on challenges in their work and on the campaign they’ve joined called #WeNeedDiverseBooks (see Track 4 below).
— from feature report, 6/19/14 by Virginia Spatz (Track 2 below)

See also Rush Revere: Victor Vanquished by Tiny Bookstore? for more on this story.


Listen Thursdays at 11 a.m. (Eastern).

Why Teaching for Change?
and Why not Rush Revere?

Deborah Menkart, executive director of Teaching for Change, told host Thomas Byrd how the organization’s bookstore has been part an essential part of the Busboys and Poets gathering place since it opened in 2005. Bookstores everywhere are struggling. And many potential patrons browse and enjoy learning through the bookstore but then make purchases through on-line sellers unconnected with the store.

“We need to people to buy through us,” Menkart emphasized.

And why shouldn’t a store that is struggling do as celebrity author Rush Limbaugh recently suggested, in a bitter tirade about the store’s “racist” policies, and offer his bestselling middle-grades books?

Guests responded in several ways (see partial transcript below). In addition
Debbie Reese, who could not participate live sent a comment in advance. Reese, an expert and writer about the representation of Native Americans in children’s literature, says:

Limbaugh purports to have heroes in his book that are not white. However, his “Native American” character, Freedom, is evidence of his ignorance of the concept of diversity. If he had a full understanding of Native people, his character would be of a specific tribe rather than the generic “Native American.” The character’s attributes are precisely those that are widely recognized as stereotypical.

Moreover, her name is illustrative of his agenda, which I think is intent on collapsing the “we” in “We the People” to a monolithic American that seeks to erase the ways that diversity can make the United States a society that truly embraces all its citizens and all of its history.


Partial Transcript of the June 19 Education Town Hall

Thomas Byrd, host: Thank you for joining the Education Town Hall. This is your humble servant and host, Thomas Byrd.

It is an honor and a pleasure and a privilege to have on the line with us Deborah Menkart, who is the executive director of Teaching for Change. We also have Zetta Elliott and Enid Lee, who are authors and can tell us more about their books as we get into this conversation. Thank you all for joining us.

I wanted to have you on because of this controversy — which I think is a low blow to Teaching for Change — initiated by none other than Rush Limbaugh, who stated that Teaching for Change is a racist organization because they don’t stock his book in their bookstore.

Folks, Teaching for Change runs the bookstore at Busboys and Poets on 14th Street, here in DC…

…I want to get your version… Please share with us and the genesis of this controversy.

Deborah Menkart, Teaching for Change: Thomas, thank you for having the conversation. This is why your show is so important.

The controversy arose because he heard my talk on CSPAN-BookTV.

We were… Teaching for Change, as you mentioned, owns and operates the bookstore at Busboys and Poets ever since it opened.

Andy Shallal, who had been a board member of ours, asked if we would partner with him to run an independent progressive bookstore because he knew that [it was] part of our mission.

You know, our overall mission is building social justice starting in the classroom. And part of that means providing progressive teaching resources, resources for children, parents, teachers and the broader community.

We’ve run what’s really become an extraordinary bookstore, really a destination for many people looking for progressive books. But we’re struggling, and we’re not sure that we can continue. And so what we wanted to do when we have author events [was to tell participants that] ‘We need your support to keep our doors open.’

At the event…When I introduced the event, I shared some recent data on a really long-lasting problem…many people would think that it would be improving…but less than 10% of books being published for children are by or about children of color. Clearly a travesty.

And so our commitment in our bookstore has been to feature books that are by and about people of color. That has led to the fact that 90% of the books that we sell fall in that category. I mentioned in that introduction that we work very hard on that selection to find those titles. And to find good titles, very strong titles. And that we — the easy thing would be to take the NY Times bestseller list, but that’s not the route we take.

And one of the books that happens to be on the bestsellers list right now, a two books — are books by Rush Limbaugh and that despite being bestsellers we do not carry. And that’s what sparked him to both accuse us of being racist for providing books by and about people of color and to question our integrity for not carrying his book.

Byrd: …Let me ask this: Before he made those pronouncements on his show, did he ever reach out to you or your organization?

DM: No….But he certainly has had. We’ve been barraged with phone calls from people calling to ask his books… and suggesting I drop dead…. But, no, he did not approach us.

Virginia Spatz, feature reporter: The people who are asking for the book — I mean I realize you are not going to have great conversations with most of them — but don’t they realize that they could get the book at Barnes & Noble, they could get it at any mainstream bookstore, they could probably get it at Wal-Mart, they could get it at Amazon. But they cannot get those titles that you are offering in those places?

DM: Well, the purpose of the calls is harassment. But we do point out that all independent bookstores are connected through IndieBound. We have a webstore where you could order his book or any [so Limbaugh’s book could be purchased from Teaching for Change through their website]…

We have a very small small footprint. We’re very selective about what we stock there and our focus is on progressive, multicultural, social justice literature. His book doesn’t fall into any of those criteria.

Byrd: So the fact that you’re not carrying his book, he then calls you a racist organization….If you didn’t carry other white middle-aged men’s books, then maybe he could make some kind of a case…but I think this is a low blow. Just when I think he can’t sink any lower, he does sink lower….I’ll give you an opportunity, Deborah, to respond and then I want to hear from Zetta and Enid.

Byrd: …Really I think he is looking for free publicity for his own book. But it’s a supreme distortion of the meaning of “racism.”

Enid Lee, author and co-editor of Beyond Heroes and Holidays:
One of the things I’ve noted is that the word “race,” and the word “racism,” is a trigger to get people misdirected. Sometimes it’s a genuine misunderstanding of what racism is, you know? In some ways, I’m not surprised that he has used that word and that people have fallen for it.

I think that one of the things that is helpful is to make We have to make clear that racism is about power and the ability of one group of persons, based on their race, to control things like publishing and so forth. You know?

I think we need to use this occasion to help clarify what it is that is commonly misunderstood or misrepresented in our society. What Teaching for Change is doing is reversing trends of racism by ensuring that people of color have a voice and that their lives are represented in reading materials.

Byrd: You know, what’s phenomenal to me is that Rush Limbaugh always accuses our President Obama of race-baiting, and he turns right around and uses the same playbook. You can’t have it both ways.

Zetta Elliott, author of Bird and other children’s books:
What’s so amazing to me is that Rush Limbaugh cannot recognize his own privilege. Right? I mean, he’s a celebrity author already — It’s not that he’s not an expert in children’s literature — As others have pointed: He is a celebrity author. He got this opportunity. His book is available everywhere. It’s on the bestsellers list. It won a prize. This isn’t about censorship. It isn’t about exclusion.

The fact of the matter is that the store has a mission — I’m sure that Rush Limbaugh would not say to Christian bookstore: You have to carry books by Satanists — If the book doesn’t fit with mission of the store, it doesn’t have to be available in the store. And as Deborah said, it’s still available on their website.

This is a store that goes out of its way to be progressive and inclusive. But they have a right to curate their list. They have a right to determine which books they choose to promote. And because they are on the side of social justice they are looking at the publishing industry and seeing that writers of color make up less than 5% of the children’s book authors being published.

I am so honored that my book, my picture book, Bird, is a staff pick. And that they include my other books.

Because you know what? I publish with Amazon. I publish with Amazon, and Teaching for Change is still not afraid to have my books in their store. That is how progressive and advanced they are.

So it’s absolutely ridiculous for a man who is so privileged and has such an overwhelming sense of entitlement, that he can somehow now see himself as a victim, that he is being excluded from this one store that has a right to its own mission statement. It’s just absolutely ridiculous.

Byrd: I’m amazed that he can write a book about education. That is the part that is tripping me out.

…Transcript continues here.  Full conversation, Track 4 above.


More on Teaching for Change from the Education Town Hall
Tellin’ Stories at Orr Elementary 6/10/14,
“After School Special” and Teacher Appreciation Week 5/8/14
Teaching for Change 9/13/13
Dr. Ida Jones Teaching for Change author 8/21/13
Direct Discussion of Race and Ed 8/7/13

See also Resources on Racism (Jordan Davis) 3/20/14
Follow tags for yet more stories relating to Teaching for Change



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