If you’ve been writing for children for very long at all, you’ve heard many discussions about knowing who the audience for your book is and who will read what. The common belief goes something like this:
- Kids want to read about people like themselves.
- We need books that feature children who look just like your reader so that they are more comfortable in the land of literature.
- Girls will read books with male main characters but not the reverse.
- Don’t make it too hard to read or they’ll flounder and quit.
My son’s school started a new program this year — 5th and 6th graders are shuffled into multi-grade book clubs 4 times/week. I’m volunteering 1 day/week with the group led by my son’s teacher. The groups are created based on reading level but the children will be shifted, as needed, between one book and the next.
The group I am working with has 2 boys and approximately 12 girls. They are all African American. Given the numbers of subsidized lunches given out each day, I know that many of these kids are from homes that are least marginally impoverished.
Now, according to the common wisdom, there is only a marginal chance that they will connect with their assigned book — Bridge to Terabithia — which has a white, male, impoverished protag. Why do I say this? Because they have only one trait in common and the illustrations make it clear that he doesn’t look a whole lot like them except for the basic features shared by humans in general.
They were also struggling with the vocabulary itself. Crimson threw them for a complete loop.
Yet, these kids were seriously into this book. They got what was happening and they could correctly answer more questions about the book than I could since I hadn’t finished reviewing the book yet. The teacher offered them the chance to write a play about the book when we are done reading it and you would have thought she was handing out I-phones (or whatever the commodity of the week is).
My son’s group is reading Esperanza Rising. I could not have gotten him to read this book on a dare, but he’s into it. Tonight we are planning to drill on the 5 pages of Spanish vocabulary that the teacher gave them. That much in Spanish would make this book pretty challenging since our local Hispanic population isn’t very big.
Again, this book seems to have several marks against it yet these kids are flying along, eagerly going to their groups and, for the most part, listening intently to what is going on.
I’m not saying that African American kids don’t need to read about people like themselves, but I think we need to find ways to help all young readers connect with a greater variety of characters. We should be building bridges and not creating divides.
I don’t have a lot of grand theories based on my observations, but I am definitely going to be noodling this over as I go back to book club on Thursday.