If we want to help students explore multiple perspectives and participate in critical conversations about what they read, we must ensure access to a variety of texts that can both validate students’ identities and stretch their thinking. For many students, the classroom library is the most immediate access to texts. Therefore, our classroom libraries must be inclusive of all voices and perspectives. Consider a cursory assessment of your book collection to identify gaps and areas of overrepresentation or misrepresentation as you make book selections for your classroom library.
A book sorting activity is one way to begin that process. To get started pull a random sample of your library. We like to begin with 25 books. Sort the books into three stacks to examine gender:
Female main characters
Male main characters
Non-binary or characters whose identities are not defined
Pause and reflect: What do you notice? What surprises you? Does this identify a gap or an overrepresentation? Would this sample be representative of your entire collection?
Next, within each stack make another sort. This time, examine how the main character is portrayed.
Is the character portrayed in a stereotypical gender role (e.g. girls who love pink, fear bugs, play with dolls, etc./ boys who are rough and tumble, love the outdoors, explore nature, etc)?
Is the character portrayed in a non-stereotypical gender role (girls who dislike dresses, climb trees, like to fish, etc./ boys who prefer dolls, like sparkly things, prefer music or art, etc.)?
Pause and reflect: What do you notice? What does this suggest for your library? Who is underrepresented?
Now, take a look at each of these stacks.
In which stacks do you find characters of color?
What percentage of boys are BIPOC?
What percentage of girls are BIPOC?
Are girls portrayed as strong, independent, self-reliant? If yes, what percentage of those girls are BIPOC?
Are boys portrayed as artistic, sensitive, caring and nurturing, in touch with their emotions? If yes, what percentage of those boys are BIPOC?
Pause and reflect: What message does this sample of your collection send about gender representation? Does that message differ when examining the portrayal of BIPOC males or females or non-binary? What messages are being sent to readers about who is valued and honored and respected? Are there students who find no character with whom they identify? Does your collection suggest that one group is preferred or privileged? Does your collection marginalize any groups?
Now that you have sorted the books in your first sample take a look at your stacks.
Which seem to be lacking?
Where do you find overrepresentation?
What does it suggest to you about adding to your collection?
What does it suggest that you look for as you examine the remainder of your collection?
Share what you noticed with your students, then repeat the process with a second sampling of books, but this time invite your students to join in. Get them into groups of 4 or 5 and give each group 20-25 books to sort. Make a record of their noticings and reactions using this optional handout.
When you’ve worked through this second sort have each group share their findings and offer examples from each stack. Compare the findings of each group and those from your first sort. Invite students to offer insights, raise questions, and make suggestions.
Based on this information, invite your students to make predictions about what they would likely discover if they were to sort the entire classroom library. Then, if you are up for it, pull all the books into tubs in the middle of the room and invite students to do the sorts in groups. To make your findings more concrete, create a bar graph of books in stacks.
When the sorts are complete make note of what this reveals about the classroom collection. Invite students to analyze the information and make charts to show the findings. Ask your students to point out the gaps discovered in your library and launch a search of titles that could fill the gaps. Explore resources to add books and prioritize titles to be added.
Now pause and reflect with students. Brainstorm other types of information you want to explore about your collection. Consider what sorting you will need to do in order to discover that information and try it with a small sample of 25 books. For example, you may consider sorting books by setting (urban/rural, time of year, weather, time of day, inside/outside, time period, etc.) by language patterns (colloquial, regional dialect, etc.) socioeconomic conditions, and more. Consider what these sorts may reveal to you and your students.
Checklist: 8 Steps for Creating a Diverse Book Collection from Lee & Low Books
Guide for Selecting Anti-Bias Children’s Books
For recommended lists of thematic inclusive literature, check out Reading to Make a Difference: Using Literature to Help Students Speak Freely, Think Deeply, and Take Action by Lester Laminack and Katie Kelly