My MLK Day Reading List

Take even a cursory look at my profile picture and you can see I’m a white woman. What you might not know is that I’m a member of a transracial family. In the past few years, being a part of this family has profoundly enriched, challenged and transformed my previous, homogenous life. I’ve made it a point not to talk much about my family in my professional life; I respect and protect their privacy. But know that being a part of this family has made me the writer and the reader I am today.

One of the reasons I read is to learn about the world. To explore different perspectives, to understand how the past shapes the present, to see things through other eyes and other experiences. I write to make sense of the world as I continue to explore it. Reading (and writing) about race has been one of the bigger ways I’ve sought to understand how the past has informed my present family, as well as to chart the issues and opportunities that lie ahead.

In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his legacy, I’m sharing a few of the books that have influenced and informed me over the past few years.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness – Michelle Alexander.

  • I was obsessing over talking with friends about Netflix’s Making a Murderer. “It will make you so angry,” one of my friends said, “so be prepared for that.” “I’m guessing it will make me at least as angry as reading The New Jim Crow,” I answered. So be prepared. And be prepared to talk about reforming the criminal justice system.

Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates

  • Powerful, searing, complex and personal. I know it’s a book I will return to again and again over the coming years, as so many of the questions Coates raises are ones that affect my family.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration – Isabel Wilkerson

  • I read this book over a series of summer afternoons as I lounged on my front porch. It is riveting. I don’t usually read nonfiction, but I couldn’t put this down. I also learned how little Black history I learned in school. Books like these are even more important, considering those embarrassing gaps in our educational system, at least the ones of the mid 80s & 90s.

Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History

  • I do read a lot of fiction and have been intentionally reading a diverse set of authors in the past years. I also traditionally read a lot of speculative fiction – I’m a huge Octavia Butler fan and am currently devouring N. K. Jemisin‘s The Fifth Kingdom. This anthology offers a beautiful collection of stories from voices that have traditionally been ignored and forgotten.

These are just a few favorites. What are others to add to the list?


Diversify Your Shelves

Last week we saw the We Need Diverse Books campaign storm Twitter.  In case you missed it or are feeling nostalgic:

Saturday’s challenge was to buy diverse books (or check them out from your local library.)  Even though it was a lovely spring day, my wee ones wanted to go to the mall (because apparently I’m raising teenager girls).  We ended up at the train table in Barnes & Noble.  The wee ones played while I looked for diverse picture books.

Here’s what I found: it’s really hard to find diverse books.  I know, duh – that’s the point of the campaign.  I pride myself on my collection of kids books about and by African American authors and illustrators.  But I’ve found most of them through specific title searches.  (Whoa, some librarianese just surfaced there.)

I’ve found diverse books in the past usually because I’ve sought them out.  I’ve tracked down specific authors and/or illustrators from blogs, reading lists and recommendations from others.  It was much harder to find diverse books simply by skimming the bookstore shelves.

I pulled out book after book, looking for one that didn’t have a white kid (usually a boy) or an animal on the front.  That’s no knock on those books in general – there are some excellent children’s books featuring white boys or animals as main characters.  But there were so many books that could have told the same story with a child of color, or a differently abled child, or a child wearing a headscarf or a child with two mommies.

We need diverse books to tell our stories.  We need to question why white (male) is the automatic default.  We need books that don’t assume one way of being is standard and the rest are “different” or “exotic.”

So with time running out on the cooperation the wee ones were willing to expend at the train table, I made a final mad dash through the picture books and found two of them, which the wee ones love (especially the alien one).  I found both of them because they happened to be on display.

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Here’s a tip for bookstores and libraries – displays matter.  Covers matter.  We are in the business of connecting readers with books – and especially the books they may not even know they need.  Help a reader out, especially before time runs out at the train table.

We Need Diverse Books

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I’m an intensely private person with a stubborn exhibitionist streak.  I want people to know some of my deepest desires and talents but only after I’ve carefully packaged  and presented them.  Okay, you caught me – I’m a bit of a control freak.  Plus I’m inconsistent.  I’ll share too much in one situation and then back off in another.  It all depends on how I’m feeling.  Or the weather.

All of this is to say that I don’t like blogging about my kids.  I want to protect their privacy and, since we are a transracial family, I am extra cautious about how I present our family to the world.  My kids will face enough racism in their lives; I’m not going to add to it by plastering their pictures all over social media for strangers to comment on us.

There are lots of things I want for my kids.  In the language of metta meditation, I want them to be happy, healthy, safe, and live with ease.  I want them to be comfortable with themselves and their world.  I want them to have a positive, strong sense of their own identities, including what it means for them to be persons of color.

Cue me flipping through kids programming on TV or looking at movie previews or browsing books online or in the library.  There are a lot of white (male) protagonists.  I find books (and a few TV shows and a few movies) with kids of color, but they are few and far between.

My kids need to see characters that look like them because they need to know that they are a part of the story.  They are main characters in their own lives, but the publishing industry doesn’t necessarily reflect this concept.

My kids are growing up in a world where white is the norm and they are the exceptions.  I will teach them about white privilege and continue to explore my own.  We will continue discussing concepts of power, norms, identities and race.  But it sure would help if they could see themselves and their experiences reflected so much more in the books they read.

This is why I need diverse books.