As with the start of every school year, teachers put out requests for help with classroom supplies, through Amazon lists, DonorsChoose projects, and other avenues.
Books have been among the top requested items for teachers across the country every year since the 2018/2019 school year, according to an analysis of DonorsChoose data.
And, over the past few years, there’s been a “major push” for more anti-racism books in classrooms, says Katie Potter, senior literacy manager at Lee & Low Books, a New York City-based publisher that’s been publishing diverse children’s books for the past 30 years. The requests for these books show how Black educators are demonstrating “anti-racism stories or narratives aren’t always about overcoming trauma and marginalization.”
Over the last four school years, these are the most requested books by Black teachers through DonorsChoose: “I Am Enough” by Grace Byers, “The Day You Begin” by Jaqueline Woodson, “Hair Love” by Matthew A. Cherry, “Sulwe” by Lupita Nyong’o, and “New Kid” by Jerry Craft.
DonorsChoose works with schools and districts nationwide, classifying them as “equity focus” and “non-equity focus.” It defines equity focus schools as those with at least 50% of the student body being Black, Latino, Native American, Pacific Islander, or multiracial, and at least 50% of students qualifying for free or reduced price lunch.
Across all schools, these books are most popular among Pre-K through fifth grade. And, in equity focus schools, requests for these books have increased each year. Across all three years, “I Am Enough” and “Hair Love” have reigned in the top two spots, with 625 and 548 requests.
These titles don’t surprise Kathy Lester, a middle school librarian and president of the American Association of School Librarians. They all share a common theme of celebrating children and encouraging self-affirmation.
“That age of students, it’s important for them to see themselves in literature,” Lester says.
Requests for these books have seen increases by more than 50% at equity focus schools each school year, with a 58% increase from the 2019/2020 school year to the 2020/2021 school year, and a 53% increase from 2020/2021 to 2021/2022.
All five of these books have been met with bans from libraries and classrooms, and some are still pending, according to PEN America’s database. Craft’s “New Kid” made headlines last year when his author visit was canceled at a Texas school amid parent claims that the book supports critical race theory.
For more selections, Lee & Low Books keeps a diverse reading list for books that bring joy aimed at young readers, which includes titles like Samara Cole Doyon’s “Magic Like That” and Patricia Hubbell’s “Black All Around.”
“Don’t forget that BIPOC children also deserve to see themselves thrive, to experience the joy of being a part of a loving community, and to not be stuck in a cycle of oppressive narratives that can shape how others view them,” Potter says.
So Why These Books?
These books aren’t popular by accident. A handful of them were featured on a Netflix Jr. series in 2020, and they’re written by very influential people — high profile and award-winning actors, a former football player, and celebrated authors — and have won a ton of awards, like “New Kid” being the first graphic novel to win the Newbery Medal.
The visibility of these books makes it easier for teachers to get books that are more culturally responsive in their classrooms, says Breanna McDaniel, program manager at the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books.
“When you have books that already are receiving a lot of different attention, you have an opportunity to get these books into the classrooms more quickly, and they have more staying power than books that are less visible,” McDaniel says.
Visibility aside, these books also demonstrate joy, acceptance, and confidence, which isn’t always common in children’s books with BIPOC characters, Potter says. This means making sure classroom libraries have books that show children of color experiencing “daily realities of their lives,” like the first day of school or learning how to ride a bike.
“It’s so important for each child to see themselves in every aspect of life — especially those that exude happiness and normalcy,” Potter says.
Books Open Conversations and Instill Pride
Diverse books do a lot of work in classrooms. For one, they can help open discussions about a range of issues, some of which may not be easy, like race and social justice.
At her middle school, Lester says “New Kid” is one of the most popular selections among students. Even though the story centers on Craft’s experience as one of the few Black children attending a private school, the themes are universal that all kids can connect with.
“These particular books, they allow all children to see Black children and see some of our uniqueness and differences,” Lester says. “But also, through every single one of these, there’s a universal theme where every kid can connect. And that helps all kids see that, even though we’re different and we can value those differences, we are still connected.”
Like “New Kid,” McDaniel, who is also an author, has seen her book “Hands Up!” banned in various states. Amidst nationwide conversations about book banning, McDaniel says it can be difficult to figure out what messaging is most effective, especially for a young audience, byproviding an opportunity for enrichment and enlightenment.
“It doesn’t have to just be books that are presented by Black creatives or authors or illustrators,” McDaniel says, adding that “any book that presents any person with an opportunity to look at experiences and connections that might be different from their own through a vessel that’s different from what they’ve experienced” is beneficial.
This list, Potter says, shows that teachers aren’t compromising quality or rigor to have feel-good stories.
“These are complex, joyful, multi-faceted storylines and characters that will encourage powerful conversations and multiple readings,” Potter says. “I look at this list and see a powerful message from these educators to their students: I see you, your full self is welcome here, let’s get to work.”