Young Library Users Discover Diverse Characters

There are 3 ways to think about fiction.

Books can be mirrors, reflecting our own experiences.

They can be windows, allowing us to look at new worlds. 

Or they can be sliding glass doors. Exceptional authors help us actually walk through, and enter other people’s lives.

Because young people come to literature with great curiosity and openness, children’s literature is exceptionally important. Too often though, the characters young readers see are too much like themselves.

Or nowhere like them at all.

In an effort to broaden the pages available to local child, tween and teenage readers, the Westport Library and Public School’s PTA have teamed up on an exciting initiative.

“Finding Diverse Books” — a curated list of the Library’s collection — features long-underrepresented characters. Specifically, they’re Asian, Latinx, Black, LGBTQ, Native American, people with disabilities, and those who are neurodiverse (on the autism spectrum, or with similar different abilities).

Selections are broken into levels: K-2nd grade, 3rd-5th, middle school and high school.

“Can I Touch Your Hair?” presents paired poems about topics like family dinners, sports, recess and more.

It’s part of a national “We Need Diverse Books” project, begun by authors and the publishing industry. The Library’s “Own Voices” program is an offshoot of that.

The Westport PTA’s Committee on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion has championed the effort. Library director of youth services Mary Parmelee is an enthusiastic supporter.

She points to research showing that when children read books deeply and closely, their brain lights up in the same area as if they were actually living that experience.

“Parents understand Westport is an insular world,” Parmelee says. “They’re asking for these books. And they’re checking them out.”

The youth librarian reels off a wide sampling of popular topics: books about Black children’s place in America, trans youth’s experiences in high school, Latinx families and life with OCD.

“Pashima” is about a girl who thinks her mother’s homeland exists only in her imagination.

Yet many simply include diverse characters as part of everyday life. One features a little Black girl whose parents try to get her to sleep in her own bed.

“For years, these types of characters were not part of the books being published,” Parmelee notes.

Now they are.

“We hope they can help nurture a society that is connected through a shared humanity,” says PTA DEI committee co-chair Ngassam Ngnoumen.

Check ’em out!

(Click here for the Westport Library’s “Diverse Books Need Us” page. Click here for the Library’s #OwnVoices Resource Guide.)

3 responses to “Young Library Users Discover Diverse Characters

  1. I know a local woman who is self publishing an amazing children’s series with a racially diverse protagonist. Her name is Theresa Miller. She lives in Norwalk and her books are about a child named Andy. These would be a great addition to the library collection.

  2. “New Kid” is a graphic novel written by a Norwalk resident, Jerry Craft. It’s a fantastic bridge between knowing what it’s like to be the new kid in a neighborhood or school to discussing what it means to have a skin color that doesn’t match everyone else’s.

    I think that what a lot of white-European, heterosexual, or able-bodied people don’t realize is that books have ALWAYS reflected ourselves back to us, so it can be difficult to understand why that would be so important for others. We all need to be able to see ourselves in what we read and watch. Raising a kid that welcomes and is openly curious about difference – in others as well as themselves – is exponentially enhanced by reading books and watching programs that feature people of all cultures/skin hues.

  3. What a great initiative, 25 years ago when I moved to Westport I had a good friend that refused to move here because she felt it was not diverse enough to raise her children in. It’s great to see the library doing what a library can- open our eyes & ears!