February 26, 2019 By Tatyana Woodall
An Ohio State post-doctoral researcher has found that cultural diversity in literature, or the lack of it, can make a huge impact in and beyond the classroom.
Carlotta Penn, a literacy trainer in the College of Education and author of the 2017 children’s book “Dream A Rainbow,” focuses the majority of her work on social justice and multicultural education. In the past year, she’s also presented a TEDx talk about her experience within the world of diverse children’s literature.
“It’s a historical reality that education has been withheld from black and indigenous people in the United States,” Penn said. “There’s just a long history of oppression and exclusion when it comes to education and education rights.“
According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s annual statistics on multicultural literature, less than 7 percent of the 3,700 children’s books published in 2017 were written by African-American, Latino or American-Indian authors.
Working with educators to raise awareness about the benefits of a diverse education, Penn said that committing to the work of multicultural education and social justice doesn’t have to be an isolated project.
“The challenges for educators who are interested in approaching teaching and learning in ways that are transformative are people who believe that they are aware of the need for diversity,” Penn said. “They think that, for example, just reading multicultural literature does the work of social justice, and it doesn’t.”
The relatively recent movement for more diverse literature has garnered the support of both educators and students, with a pair of awards — the Coretta Scott King Award and Tomas Rivera Award — being established. The Coretta Scott King Award, started in 1970, is given to outstanding African-American authors, while the Tomas Rivera Award has honored Mexican-American literature since it was created in 1995.
Ruth Lowery, professor of children’s literature and associate chair for the Department of Teaching and Learning, said that children should experience the story themselves while also engaging with other cultures in literature.
“The books we choose for our classrooms and the books we give to our students should have meaning,” Lowery said.
Losing out on these meaningful connections can cause children to feel isolated, she said. After studying how immigrant children are portrayed across different cultures, this is a trend that she has encountered in and outside of the classroom even more frequently in recent years.
Lowery said that often when minoritized children see themselves or similar experiences in a book, they are surprised. Alternatively, being exposed to an abundance of diversity in literature can help children better handle certain social situations with which they’re faced.
Sometimes described as sliding doors or windows among professionals, books allow people to delve into perspectives away from their own while instilling valuable lessons.
“You want young people to develop empathy and be able to understand others,” Lowery said. “Books about a diverse group of people help all students to see that even in our diversity, there is strength.”