by Shaker Laurie, a Reading and English teacher in Minneapolis, escaped academic, spouse, and mom to the feistiest three-year-old on the block.
[Content Note: Racism.]
Earlier this week, National Public Radio published its "100 Best-Ever Teen Novels" list. Voted on by NPR readers/listeners from a list of 1200 nominations, also audience-submitted, the list is loaded with amazing writing—amazing writing about white protagonists. Only two—yes, two—books on the list are written about main characters of color: House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.
As a teacher of reading and English in schools with large populations of students of color, young adult fiction about characters of color is high on my radar. Many of my students don't see themselves as readers when they walk into my classroom. Reader identity and engagement are a huge component of the work we do as we address student reading problems, and when students are handed books full of characters that are unlike them racially, culturally, and socio-economically, the chasm between their picture of themselves and their idea of books and who books are for only widens.
The problem is not that amazing books about teens of color don't exist. They do. My kids latch obsessively onto books about teens like them and read them voraciously because adolescents in all their self-involved glory enjoy reading texts that remind them of, well, themselves. Sherman Alexie and Sandra Cisneros certainly deserve their received accolades: The House on Mango Street is a beautifully poetic account of a Latina's coming of age, and Absolutely True Diary poignantly tells the story of a boy who struggles with life on a reservation and his desire for a strong education. Judith Ortiz Cofer, Walter Dean Myers, Linda Sue Park, and Matt de la Peña's work also comes to mind, so when NPR comes along and declares 100 books the "Best-Ever" and leaves nearly every single young adult title written about people of color off the list without caveat or mention, damage is done.
Clearly, audience-selected "Best Ever" lists are dangerous and problematic, but the absence of any indication of NPR's awareness of the glaring neglect on their list is also troubling. A list of "Best-Ever" books that declares only two books about teens of color worthy keeps all of these amazing stories in the margins, and arguably marginalizes them even further. When the world of reading remains so predominantly white, children and teens of color receive the clear message that they don't belong. It sends a message directly from readers as well as NPR that writing about people of color is not valuable or valued, that their stories aren't as important as the trials and tribulations of Edward and Bella; the Twilight series ranks #27.
Such an exclusive list isn't just problematic for teens of color; when white teens are told that the "good" books are all about white people, it normalizes the white experience and bolsters white privilege. For me, growing up in a community that was 99% white, reading was one of the first ways I was able to interact with narratives of people of color. Books lay a foundation on which kids can reflect on social justice and understand that the lives, conflicts, and struggles of people of color are important—that people of color are equal actors in the world. Yes, kids want to read about themselves, and that is important, but it is also critical for kids living with privilege to read about people living without those privileges, not just for some requisite "exposure to diversity," but because, if we want them to be committed to changing the world, they have to understand it needs to change.
The walls of my classroom are covered in photos of my students—90% of whom are of color—reading books. For most of them, the visual of themselves with books is new and exciting. For most kids, reading is not inherently boring; it is a world of escape and imagination. Kids want to see themselves as smart and successful, and reading comes along with that image, so it is inexcusable that NPR publish material that screams, "Good reading=whiteness." Those who champion literacy fight daily against the cultural message that reading is for white people, and according to NPR and its audience, it is.