As Clark County’s population becomes more culturally diverse, so too should the books that find a home in classrooms around the Las Vegas Valley.
That’s the practice that one UNLV teacher educator promotes among her students who are learning to become teachers. It’s also the theme of a new literacy lecture series she launched last fall, Embracing Empathy Through Literature and Lived Experiences.
“Children don’t always see themselves in the books that they read,” said Sophie Ladd, an assistant professor of teaching and learning at UNLV. “My job is to help teachers choose literature that’s going to support their children, and help them want to read more.”
While the need for diverse literature isn’t necessarily a new trend, Ladd said, it’s nonetheless a current “hot topic” in education, where teachers are encouraged to use diverse children’s and young adult book titles to better promote empathy among students.
“I’m really trying to get teachers to step outside of who they are, to think about what their kids want to read,” Ladd said.
Historically, Ladd said, people of color have not been the primary protagonists in children’s literature.
More than two decades ago, only 9 percent of children’s books prominently featured people of color. Today, the percentage has grown to about 25 percent, according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center.
Nonetheless, the books and their authors can be difficult to find. Ladd wants to make it easier.
“There’s lots of books that are being published recently that have just really pushed the envelope,” Ladd said.
“Each Kindness” is one that she recommends. Another, titled “Inside Out and Back Again,” chronicles the life of a young girl whose family was displaced by the Vietnam War.
“It’s about a little girl’s experience coming to a new country, a new school, and her experiences as an immigrant, and refugee in many senses,” Ladd said. “As educators, we’re in classroom settings where many of our children are coming to the country as newcomers. By giving them rich experiences with a book like 'Inside Out and Back Again,' it helps them see that other people have the same experience and are like me.”
Diverse children’s literature is also a way for teachers to encourage broader conversation about difficult topics or issues of social justice.
Many teachers, for example, grapple with how best to teach their young students about the Holocaust, Ladd said.
Ladd, therefore, invited Susan Goldman Rubin, who has told stories of the Holocaust through the lens of children, as the first featured speaker for her new lecture series. The series is co-hosted by the Southern Nevada Writing Project, the College of Education Teacher Development and Resources Library, and UNLV Lied Library.
“Goldman Rubin uses child characters, or language that’s conducive for children, to help kids learn,” Ladd said, adding that she meets with survivors of the Holocaust to hear their true accounts.
Ladd said that while Goldman Rubin’s stories are told through the narrative perspective of children, the events that she chronicles are historically accurate.
“Diverse literature shouldn’t paint things in a positive light when they’re not,” Ladd said. “It shouldn’t be sugar-coated.”
The next author for the series, which will continue in the spring at UNLV, has yet to be determined. However, the upcoming Gayle A. Zeiter Children’s and Young Adult Literature Conference on March 7, 2019, will feature Kwame Alexander.
And while children’s literature has an obvious niche in kindergarten through fifth-grade classrooms, Ladd said picture books are important tools for middle and high school learners, and even college students, as well.
“Separate is Never Equal” — a story of segregation in schools — is one popular picture book currently circulating in middle and high school classrooms, she said.
“When you think about a picture book, it’s only 32 pages, so authors have to be very intentional about the words they choose because you’re in such a limited space,” she said. “You can read a picture book aloud usually in one sitting. And then you not only have the words — but the illustrations — to help bring to light an issue.”
Sophie’s Top Picks
- “Maybe Something Beautiful: How Art Transformed a Neighborhood” by F. Isabel Campoy, Theresa Howell, and Rafael López
- “All Around Us” by Xelena González and Adriana M. Garcia
- “We’re All Wonders” by R. J. Palacio
- “Not Quite Narwhal” by Jessie Sima
- “The Invisible Boy” by Trudy Ludwig and Patrice Barton
- “Those Shoes” by Maribeth Boelts and Noah Z. Jones
- “Each Kindness” by Jacqueline Woodson and E. B. Lewis
- “Can I touch your hair?: Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship” by Irene Latham and Charles Waters
- “Marisol Doesn’t Match” by Monica Brown and Sara Palacios
- “Last Stop on Market Street” by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson
- “Brown Girl Dreaming” by Jacqueline Woodson
- “Inside Out and Back Again” by Thanhha Lai
- “Hello Universe” by Erin Entrada Kelly and Isabel Roxas