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A couple years ago, I conducted an experiment. I went on BN.com and looked up 10 Latino children’s books and YA novels recommended by Ruth Quiroa in the book Jamie Campbell Naidoo and I had co-edited – Diversity in Youth Literature: Opening Doors Through Reading (ALA Editions). BN.com indicated that the 3 BN stores closest to my house (northwest suburbs of Minneapolis, MN) did not carry any of the 10 books. I visited one in person to see what Latino books I could find by just browsing, but all I found was Skippyjon Jones, a picture book which contains some very problematic text and illustrations. I spoke with a clerk, and she encouraged me to search for and request the 10 books online. I responded that had I just walked into the store, I would have had 0% chance of coming across these books in a more serendipitous manner.

Instead, a friend who works at an independent bookstore nearby asked for my list and confirmed that the store carried some of the books and would order the other recommended books. Hurray!

I encourage you to conduct a similar experiment. Take a list of recommended books by someone you trust, whether it’s the Coretta Scott King or a list of American Indian children’s books put together by Debbie Reese, and investigate whether or not nearby bookstores carry those books. Talk to sales people and find out if they typically don’t carry those titles (perhaps they just sold out that morning), if they can recommend other similar titles, etc. If they don’t, adapt the first letter below and write to the bookstore. If they do – hurray! – adapt the second letter below and write to the bookstore.

Please email me (spark@stkate.edu) with details of your experiment! Tell me:

  1. the list of books and where you got it from
  2. the store
  3. the city and state
  4. other details such as conversations you had with salespeople, store owners, what else you found in the store, etc.

Let’s put pressure on bookstores to carry more diverse books, and thank and support the ones that already do!

* Sample letter to bookstore that does not carry diverse books *

Dear [insert store name],

My name is Sarah Park Dahlen and I am an assistant professor of library and information science at St. Catherine University. Recently, I checked your website to see if I could find 10 Latino children’s books from a list recommended by Latino children’s literature expert Ruth Quiroa in the book Diversity in Youth Literature: Opening Doors Through Reading. I was dismayed to find that not one of the 3 stores closest to me had any of the 10 books. I visited the closest one in person and was disappointed not to easily find any other Latino children’s books on the shelves. Instead, I saw that the Skippyjon Jones picture book was prominently displayed alongside a Skippyjon Jones toy. However, there exists a number of scholars and children’s literature experts who criticize the gross stereotyping in the Skippyjon Jones books, and I am unwilling to purchase, recommend or read such a book, especially when there are many others that depict Latino culture in a more nuanced, respectful, and authentic way. I could not believe that the only (allegedly) Latino children’s book visible in your store was one that has been blasted by experts for stereotyping Latino language and culture.

Instead, I found a number of the Latino books at an independent bookstore near my house. When one of the workers found out about my list, she asked for it so she could order the books that she did not have in stock. I have stopped shopping at your store and have purchased my children’s books almost exclusively from this independent bookstore instead.

It is imperative that our young people have access to books and other materials (dolls, toys, board games, etc.) that reflect the diversity around us and throughout the world. It is also important for those of us in the children’s literature industry to be mindful of books that stereotype, trivialize, and misrepresent particular cultures. Children’s books serve as both mirrors to our experiences and windows onto the experiences of others. Reading about people like us helps to affirm our experiences, and reading about experiences other than our own helps us to learn and develop empathy and compassion. However, it seems that your store stocks only mirrors for a particular group – white children – and this is unacceptable. White children, too, need to read books about people whose experiences are both similar to and different from their own.

As a big chain bookstore, you have an incredible opportunity to change children’s lives by stocking and promoting diverse children’s books, as well as make a powerful statement by refusing to stock those that stereotype and misrepresent cultures. I urge you to seek out the many excellent and engaging children’s and young adult books being written, especially those that are written by insiders, and to stock them so people can have access to books that reflect multiple experiences and perspectives. All young people deserve to see reflections of themselves in the books they read, and I truly hope you will help them to do so.

Sincerely,

Sarah Park Dahlen, Ph.D.

* Sample letter to bookstore that attempts to carry diverse books * 

Dear [insert store name],

My name is Sarah Park Dahlen and I am an assistant professor of library and information science at St. Catherine University. Recently, I contacted one of your salespeople to see if I could find 10 Latino children’s books from a list recommended by Latino children’s literature expert Ruth Quiroa in the book Diversity in Youth Literature: Opening Doors Through Reading. She informed that your store does indeed stock some of the books, and upon hearing that the other books were recommended by a Latino children’s literature expert, was eager to purchase those other books. Given the existence of so many children’s books that misrepresent Latino culture (criticisms of the gross stereotyping in the Skippyjon Jones books come to mind), I was very pleased that your salesperson was so eager to stock books that were recommended by experts.

I was unable to find any of these books at a big box chain store, and because of that and my experience with your store, I have stopped shopping at the big chain store and have purchased my children’s books almost exclusively from your bookstore instead.

It is imperative that our young people have access to books and other materials (dolls, toys, board games, etc.) that reflect the diversity around us and throughout the world. It is also important for those of us in the children’s literature industry to be mindful of books that stereotype, trivialize, and misrepresent particular cultures. Children’s books serve as both mirrors to our experiences and windows onto the experiences of others. Reading about people like us helps to affirm our experiences, and reading about experiences other than our own helps us to learn and develop empathy and compassion. I am pleased that your store aims to stock both windows and mirrors so all children could read about the diversity in the world around us.

As an independent bookstore, you have an incredible opportunity to change children’s lives by stocking and promoting diverse children’s books, as well as make a powerful statement by refusing to stock those that stereotype and misrepresent cultures. I thank you for making the effort to seek out the many excellent and engaging children’s and young adult books being written, especially those that are written by insiders, and to stock them so people can have access to books that reflect multiple experiences and perspectives. All young people deserve to see reflections of themselves in the books they read, and I am truly thankful that you help them to do so. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Sarah Park Dahlen, Ph.D.

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