Written by Nayyir Ransome, AmeriCorps member serving on the Capital Area United Way Team at Capitol Middle School.
Growing up, I was blessed with the opportunity to choose from plenty of books that reflected my culture. I had books about Kwanzaa and books of African folk tales and a storybook bible that was illustrated with all black characters. All through my young adulthood, I read stories that made me think about who I was as a black girl and who I will be as a black woman.
Reading these books not only gave me a love for myself and my culture, but also a love for reading and writing. And I wondered if others (no matter what their race, ethnicity, or culture) had a similar experience. I began to wonder if the inability to see themselves as writers, storytellers, and creators was another part of our students struggle to succeed. So I asked.
Annmarie Valentin--Senior AmeriCorps Member
Hometown: Miami, FL
My mom encouraged learning from the moment I was born. She didn't speak much English as I grew up, but this didn't stop her from reading to me every night and instilling a love for reading into me. This definitely shaped my relationship and love for reading.
I think reading in general is important for a child's development. I may not have read many books that reflect my culture, but I believe that because I grew up in such a rich Hispanic culture that I grew an attachment to my culture. However, if a child grows up in a community where their culture is lacking, it could definitely benefit them from reading about it. It would help a child feel like they belong and that they are not alone.
Emily Hinshaw--Senior AmeriCorps Member
Hometown: Pleasant Garden, NC
Reading books that represented my culture shaped my relationship to reading by making something that was on paper more real to me. I was able to grasp more of what I was reading, because I understood and had seen at least some of the things that were being described in those books. Reading these books shaped my relationship with myself into one that further solidified my identity as a North Carolinian. I was proud of the state that I lived in, and wanted to learn more about it as I grew older.
I believe reading books that reflect a child's culture is important for child development because it gives that child a chance to think critically about the way their culture is being represented in a book, and connect with characters that have similar backgrounds, histories, or are from the same region.
Makenzee Brown--AmeriCorps Member
Hometown: Saint Louis, MO
I did read books about my African American culture. The books that I read up on were mostly books about how Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) were founded and why HBCUs were important to society during the founding years and also after. I also read books about black history— simple books about Madame C.J. Walker and Booker T. Washington. My favorite book was Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America, by Ayana Byrd. This book tells how black woman hair impacted their lives & how much black hair, and black hairstyles we're relevant. It gave me a vivid picture of why black woman today are so conscious of hair.
It really did not shape my relationship with myself until college. I am of darker skin tone so I would always wish I was a lighter skin tone, or I would think I was not pretty enough. Then I read these books and I realized that these people were beautiful.
Lindsay Hall--AmeriCorps Member
Hometown: Atlanta, GA
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred D. Taylor was my favorite book growing up. I believe she wrote a few books about this family living in the rural South and their experiences with racism and economic disadvantage in the early 1900s. Taylor manages to do this while writing an entirely believable, moving children’s story. The main character is this brash and self-aware girl, Cassie, who picks her way through the social minefield that was her rural hometown. I liked her sense of purpose and her determination in the face of genuine fear. Also, Cassie was part of this close-knit family dynamic that was also a refuge from the larger community, which felt very familiar to my own family.
The books that I read allowed me to peek into the lives of other people, to understand their world view. I began to see books as a way to understand myself by meeting (in a way) different kinds of people with new ideas.
It is important that children read books that represent their culture, or at least know that stories about their culture are available. It's even better if those books are part of the mainstream set of books made available to children and not cordoned off in a special section that is explored in a specific month of the year. Books, along with other forms of storytelling, are central to the culture of a society. Being a visible part of that culture lets children know that they have a meaningful role to play in its development.
Leah Mlyn--AmeriCorps Member
Hometown: Durham, NC
I read Matzoh Mouse by Lauren Wohl when I was in elementary school. As a young Jew, I went to Hebrew School three times a week and usually attended Shabbat services on the weekends in preparation for my Bat Mitzvah. Synagogue was enriching but all the time I spent there could get a little boring.
Matzoh Mouse sticks out in my mind because it made my relationship with my religion more dynamic; it's a story about a girl who can’t wait for the Passover Seder (a Jewish holiday in the springtime that celebrates the Jews’ freedom from slavery in Egypt) to break into her family’s boxes of chocolate covered matzoh. Matzoh is a bland cracker eaten on this holiday and the days after to remember the Jews’ exodus from Egypt and the fact that the bread could not rise in time - only bake in the sun on their backs as they fled. It tastes like cardboard. Covered in chocolate, though, it becomes irresistible, especially to young Sarah in Matzoh Mouse as the days pass and the Seder approaches and she sneakily eats the entire box of chocolate covered matzoh that was supposed to be for dessert at the Seder.
This book helped shape my relationship with both reading and my religion because the book’s intense description and appealing imagery made the chocolate covered matzoh sound so delicious! I can still feel that excited, sneaky feeling I read about in the book even though it’s been years since I read it. Reading about the good family feeling Jewish holidays bring to other families just like my own helped me see the value in reading from a young age, and helped me connect my own family to Jewish tradition around the world.
Sarah Littlefield--First Year Corps Member
Home State: California
My two favorites were The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman, and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down was so interesting, because not only was it about opposing cultural views, but about medicine and disease, both of which I have always been fascinated with. It is always easier and more enjoyable to read things that interested me. And, Things Fall Apart was beautiful, because it was a story about how other cultural societies are structured and what happens when people are intolerant and close-minded. This book taught me about understanding others.
Kyra Smith--AmeriCorps Member
Home State: Connecticut
I grew up Jewish and my parents thought it was very important for me to read books about my ethnicity/religion growing up. I mostly read books about Jewish immigrants to the US (between 1870-1915) and books about kids in the Holocaust.
I grew up in a heavily WASP/Catholic area so I really only knew two or three other Jewish kids growing up. We ate different foods and celebrated different holidays than the other kids at school and I felt strange about it. Reading books about Jewish kids helped my holidays feel more normal and gave me a history I felt more connected to. In other ways, I fit in with students at my school - we were not a particularly racially or economically diverse area - but in this section of my identity I felt very different. Reading books written about my culture helped me feel connected to a history greater than myself.
I absolutely believe reading books that reflect the culture of that child is important. There's a brilliant quote by Junot Diaz that reads "You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There's this idea that monsters don't have reflections in a mirror. And what I've always thought isn't that monsters don't have reflections in a mirror. It's that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn't see myself reflected at all. I was like, "Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don't exist? And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might seem themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it." This so clearly applies to any child that doesn't see themselves represented in popular culture - but especially young children of color, particularly immigrant populations (which is the population Diaz was talking about in the context of this quote). By seeing representations of ourselves, it's easier to see where we fit and that we do in fact belong.
Dakota Tuggle--AmeriCorps Member
Hometown: Stoneville, NC
Before I found the book My Sisters’ Voices, by Iris Jacob, I had felt like no one really understood me or went through the same things as I did because I was a part of a very small population of biracial children in my small town. It opened my eyes to the fact that there were other girls like me in the world and it gave me confidence.
Reading books that represented my culture made me proud of who I was and proud of where I came from. After I read My Sisters' Voices, I kept searching to find more books about “me.” I loved reading as a child anyway, but I had more passion for this type of literature.
Growing up and not seeing many families like my own was confusing, but having positive stories to reflect on about my culture gave me a sense of confidence that I hadn't had before.