Representation has a bigger effect on children’s minds than many are aware of.
By Hannah Nuñez
Recently, banned books have caused an uproar of controversy outside of schools and within government official offices. Many believe the regulations placed upon children’s curricula have a direct correspondence with the recent decline in academic performance and are fighting against this new wave of book banning.
The Diverse Books for All Coalition is working to end this strict confinement and reinvent the classroom into a place of inclusion for all, one book at a time. Led by First Book, a national nonprofit and social enterprise, the coalition was founded in 2022 and now consists of more than 40 nonprofits and member organizations serving families and children in need. Since its founding, First Book President and CEO Kyle Zimmer, Ernestine Benedict, chief communications officer of Zero to Three (a nonprofit focused on early child development), and other Coalition members have been working collaboratively to make great strides toward change.
The banning of books as a concept has always been around. Only recently, however, has it become largely problematic due to its magnified extent. What started as a unanimous decision to protect kids from provocative titles has evolved into a much more subjective argument over what’s deemed acceptable for young readers. Before 2020, the majority of complaints regarding school library book appropriateness came from individual parents rather than large private businesses or government officials.
As the pandemic began to spread, there was a heightened sense of awareness and overall caution regarding the content younger children consumed. This caused a drastic influx of complaints to emerge as soon as schools reopened. Over the past three years, there has been a steady incline in the number of books removed from libraries due to their “inappropriate” nature. (Texas sits at number one in the nation for banned books.)
Diverse Books Matter
In order to truly understand the effect that limiting children’s academic resources has on their performance, First Book conducted a two-part study over the span of six months that would carefully analyze just how much influence diverse literature has in the classroom. “We already had an idea of what the results were going to be; it wasn’t about that,” Zimmer reveals. “It was about providing hard evidence to those who are still skeptical. The sole purpose of this study was to shine a light on just how much these bans are restricting our children’s academic potential.”
Prior to the study, teachers were encouraged to record their students’ reading patterns. Phase one of the study included carefully selecting 437 educators throughout the country to ensure the study represented all circumstance. First Book then provided each teacher with $250 to spend on diverse books of their choosing. As classroom libraries incorporated new books, teachers documented all reading activity. Phase two consisted of an in-depth review of student performance and reading patterns. From the expansive data reported back to First Book, the nonprofit was able to come to a definite conclusion about their work: Diversity matters, and the numbers prove it.
The Results Are In
All results pointed to an increase in academic achievement. During each bimonthly survey period, educators reported a three-point increase above the national average, with the most dramatic improvement showing amongst the previously lowest-scoring students. For every bilingual book provided, scores raised an average of seven points. Every additional LGBTQIA+ title prompted an average increase of four and a half points.
Accompanying the heightened test performance was a boost in reading times. Results showed that after educators provided diverse titles, classroom reading durations increased by four hours a week. To say the study was successful in proving its point is an understatement. It’s a direct reflection of the potential children have when authority figures celebrate diversity rather than frown upon it.
House Bill 900
While the majority can agree that politics should stay separate from the classroom, officials are actively creating regulations that work against a child’s educational best interest. Governor Abbott recently signed a bill that will potentially make these educational tools less accessible to classroom libraries. House Bill 900, which went into effect on Sept. 1, states that all schoolbook vendors are now required to rate their titles based on the sexually explicit content within. While at first glance this may seem productive, the lack of a concrete definition of “explicit” makes abiding by the bill nearly impossible.
“There is no real list of characteristics that make a book ‘ban worthy,’ simply because the idea of what’s appropriate and what’s not is subjective,” says Benedict. “No two parents are going to have the same parenting style, so why make that decision for them?” Book vendors filed an official complaint, stating that the bill violates the First and 14th Amendments with its “vague” demand of restricted free speech. It is not a matter of vendors disagreeing with the core of the bill. Rather its regulations are too broad to comply with under such mass production and, overall, miss the common goal in place.
Nonetheless, HB 900 is in full effect and rapidly impacting the number of books children have readily available. “None of this was ever supposed to be a political matter but has turned into a prime example of officials yet again regulating the voices of minority groups,” Benedict laments.
On Sept. 19, the Diverse Books for All Coalition officially announced their Commitment to Action at the Clinton Global Initiative. The Coalition currently plans to distribute 600,000 diverse books across the nation. As of the writing of this article, supporters have purchased 130,000 titles that serve as a representation of the Coalition’s loyalty to inclusion. While the current state of book bans is disheartening there is an opportunity for development within our community. All children deserve representation in literature. Limitations will never stop willing parents from fighting for their child’s right to inclusion.
Books By the Numbers
The 2020 U.S. Census reveals that 53% of the U.S. children’s population are children of color. Yet the books that children see do not yet reflect that level of diversity. Out of 3,450 children’s books published in the U.S. in 2022 and reviewed by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center:
- 493 (14%) have a Black/African American primary or significant secondary character (fiction) or human subject (nonfiction), setting or topic.
- 369 (11%) feature an Asian primary/secondary human subject, setting, or topic.
- 293 (8%) feature a BIPOC primary/secondary human subject, setting, or topic.
- 238 (7%) feature a Latin primary/ secondary human subject, setting, or topic.
- 60 (2%) feature Indigenous peoples as a primary/secondary human subject, setting, or topic.
While pandemic-related learning disruptions impacted all children, these disruptions affected children of color in particular. The Annie E. Casey Foundation reports the lack of reading proficiency for children of color in 2022:
- 84% of Black fourth graders
- 82% of Indigenous fourth graders
- 80% of Latin fourth graders
- 63 percent of students who identified as two or more races
By comparison, 59% of white fourth grade students were not proficient in reading.