For the past four years, I have worked with children in various settings, from reading to them on Reading is Fundamental's Storymobile, to going into schools and childcare centers for story times. I see a variety of children, from teeny tiny babies, to cute yet slobbering toddlers, to older school age children on the autism spectrum.
My job allows for me to work with kids, which I love, and interact with children's book on a daily basis, which is a huge plus for me as a children's writer. I know what's new, like Aaron Reynolds Creepy Pair of Underwear, to what the kids are loving to read, ahem: Erin Hunters Warriors Series which, at least once a day, someone asks for.
My experience for story time has been pretty typical, whether it's in reach or outreach. Walk in, introduce myself, do a hello song, followed by a few stories, and answer any questions. This experience is what I was used to, until last Thursday, when I walked in a preschool classroom and was greeted with:
My internal thoughts went something along the lines of:
"What in the..."
"Did they just?"
"No, I know they didn't just call me..."
"Are they still saying it?"
"What year is it again?"
"Yep, they're still saying it.."
To say the least, this took me aback. In no way did I get upset with the children, in fact, I didn't address the comments at all. I went on with my story time, when it was over and I was back in the office, I sent an email to the center, who in return apologized. The lead teacher came in the next day to talk with me about how we can all work together to make sure this never happens again. Should I have said something while I was there, absolutely, but sometimes situations happen and you a taken off your guard.
I don't know why the kids in this class thought it was ok to not address me by my name, but by pieces of food that are brown. I don't know the type of message they get at home or how many people of color they see on a daily basis. What I do know is the answer to that last question is probably not many. There was only one other child of color in the room, and that child wasn't African American.
What I realized in this brief experience is that it's not only vitally important for me to keep doing the work that I do (write for children and perform story times), but it's also vitally important for our diverse stories and experiences to be put into the hands of children who may not hear them anywhere else. In many respects, I am the only person of color (a child in this neighborhood sees) who is invested in reading to them and allowing them to see different worlds through literature.
By not pushing for kids to understand that we live in a diverse world, with diverse experiences, I am closing the door for them to understand others who do not look like them, sound like them, act like them, live where they live, eat what they eat, the list goes on... I refuse to close that door.
This has only strengthened my resolve to bring diverse stories into the world, meanwhile, these are the books I plan to use to make sure children hear, see and understand the world around them, and the people in it.
I am not a brownie.
I am not a piece of chocolate.
I am Brittany J. Thurman, and they will hear my stories, too.
These books are only a few. Tell me in the comments the books you love that embrace diversity, and how you've applied it in your classroom or home life!
Yes, R. J. Palacio, we are all wonders!