Children’s books on display at the Evanston Public Library. (Photo by Kristin Brown)

District 65 students are back in school, able to visit their school libraries and select actual physical books to take home. Many will make their selections from the books their school librarians choose to highlight, either by reading aloud to the class or in colorful displays throughout the library.  Some will go back into the stacks in search of particular titles or genres.

Librarians talk about the importance of windows and mirrors in literature. Readers see themselves in books that reflect their own experiences and have windows into the lives of others with books that introduce the reader to people not like themselves. It is also important that these characters represent authentic voices and are not just caricatures that check a box or worse, reinforce stereotypes.

This time last year, Gwen Tucker, ETHS ‘21, was planning her senior studies project. She wanted to spend time with K-3 students in their school libraries, reading books with them, asking them why they chose certain titles and exploring if and how students notice race in books. 

Unfortunately, with schools closed during most of the academic year, Tucker had to redesign her study to use available data. She decided to focus on two schools, looking at the diversity of the schools’ student populations and the diversity of titles in their respective collections.

Most striking, however, was her discovery that “all of the popular books with characters of color were written by white authors.” 

Tucker used the Illinois Report Card to narrow her focus based on the racial and ethnic diversity of the schools. She identified Willard, with 57% of its students classified white, as the least diverse. She selected Dawes, with only 22% white students, as the most diverse.

Tracy Hubbard, District 65’s Head Librarian, provided data about the collections and the circulation history of books at the two schools from the previous academic year.

Tucker’s analysis led her to conclude that “the diversity of the school influences the diversity of the collection.” She found, “For the overall collection, 36% of Willard’s books contain characters of color and 5% are Spanish-language. 43% of Dawes’ books contain characters of color and 21% are Spanish-language. Both collections are lacking Latinx representation as compared to their student bodies. Dawes’ student population is 35% Latinx, but their collection only contains 12% Latinx characters of color. Willard is 22% Latinx— by far their highest ethnic group of students of color— but their collection only contains 11% Latinx characters of color.” 

Tucker used the circulation data to identify “popular books” and noted, “Out of the top 50 most checked-out books, only 28% at Dawes and 12% at Willard contain characters of color.” Most striking, however, was her discovery that “all of the popular books with characters of color were written by white authors.” 

Chaga Walton, a member of the Collection Advisory Committee at the Evanston Public Library, was not surprised by the lack of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) authors, commenting, “it doesn’t make sense, not that it’s startling – because it is not; that’s the way it has been for a while.” 

“All of the things that Gwen points out are really important and really relevant,” Hubbard said. She added that collection development is “not a one-and-done kind of thing. It’s ongoing work. It’s also working with the publishers, adding titles that have been published by different authors with different characters. And it’s putting characters in different spaces, not always black characters working for civil rights.”

Fortunately, librarians at both District 65 and EPL are taking steps to expand and improve the diversity of their collections. The Collection Advisory Committee at EPL is the first of several envisioned by Betsy Bird, EPL’s Collection Development Manager. Launched in November 2020, the current advisory group includes African American Evanstonians that provide valuable input on authors and titles representing authentic voices. Bird plans to add advisory groups to represent Latinx, LGBTQ+ and Indigenous voices. She tracks not only title recommendations but also the mix of formats, making sure that titles are also available in large print, e-books and audio. 

“We were charged to look at the [EPL] collection and see what’s missing and see what we can do to shore up the collection in the library. Our charge is to continue to make sure that there are books by and about Black people,” said Walton.

At the committee’s suggestion, EPL has been in touch with Young, Black and Lit, a nonprofit organization committed to increasing access to children’s books that center, reflect, and affirm Black children. They also started partnering with Semicolon Books in Chicago, a Black woman-owned bookstore and gallery space. In February, the committee began publishing a monthly newsletter, Reset to highlight African American authors and other resources for readers.

Walton pointed out that there are several Black publishing houses producing books by Black authors and mentioned some, including Evanston’s own Path Press. But he added, “there are African American publishing houses, but there are not nearly enough and with the Black publishing houses that exist now, they can only do so much with limited resources. And most of them have their own specific genres.” 

New fiction titles on display in the EPL Children’s Library. (Photo by Kristin Brown)

EPL spends about $80,000 annually on the children’s collection, but the schools have relatively small budgets. Tucker noted the degree to which school libraries depend on the PTAs’ ability to raise funds, explaining, “the District technically gives us $4 to $5 per student.” During the pandemic closures, the librarians pivoted and used all of their funds on e-books, not on purchasing any physical books. The funds raised by PTAs also vary greatly from school to school. 

Trisha Connolly, who retired in June from the Washington School library, said she always appreciated the work the PTA did to run the Scholastic book fair, noting that many school librarians run book fairs themselves. Scholastic gives schools the option of taking their share of profits in cash or books with the caveat that the books come from the Scholastic collection. Connolly said she preferred to take cash to have greater control over diversifying Washington’s collection. 

Hubbard agrees. “I take profit over books – it’s less money but it allows me the freedom to develop what I need,” she said. She added that in recent years, sometimes four or five schools will work together on a book fair and split the profits per capita, also contributing funds to Rice and Park Schools. The PTAs and librarians have also explored other options for book fairs, Hubbard said. “We went to work with a small, independent book store out of Naperville and also held an Equity book fair with Follett. They had a better collection, but were they as representative as we would like? No.”

Laura Antolin is a Youth Engagement Librarian at the Evanston Public Library who also remembers the Scholastic book fairs at Washington when her children (now adults) were there. “In the budget there’s very little money for the library,” she said. “There was a point in time not too long ago when they were talking about getting rid of the library because they’re part of the ‘specials.’ Since then, I know that library has much more curriculum and it’s become more legitimized.” 

Antolin said that at EPL, “we spend a lot on the collection – which includes electronic resources, too – and that’s been part of how we collaborate with District 65 too,” adding, “we have a good relationship with District 65. Every year the District puts out a summer recommended reading list, and this year they chose titles from our list. We work together and try to support each other because we serve the same families.” She also said that one of the Latinx librarians goes to Guadalajara to find books that are not available here.

Brian Wilson is responsible for young readers’ collection development at EPL. His enthusiasm is infectious as he shows off the books on display throughout the children’s section, pointing out titles where the main characters are Black or indigenous or LGBTQ or have different body types or abilities. 

In her study, Tucker noted that many of the popular books with characters of color are graphic novels, but that graphic novels with characters of color represent an insignificant percentage of the overall collection.

Both Wilson and Bird pointed to the demand for more graphic novels by and about BIPOC characters. Bird said they need, “more goofy, diverse books – more silly, ridiculous… we’re naming a lot of serious, heartfelt books – but when that’s all you have, it’s limiting.” Wilson added, ”I think we feel happy that there are some things that are happening that are great, but it’s a lost opportunity for the publishing industry. Diversity hasn’t hit the comics area.” 

Walton agrees about the need for more books of all types, saying, “I can understand someone at District 65 saying there’s just not enough material written for fifth graders. What can we do to spur that on?” His answer is a call to action: “People can always write to a publishing house, or to an author, and say, “I’ve read so-and-so…why not come out with something for a fifth grader? Or a 12th grader? I’d like to see more fiction, more drama. They can spur it on. That would be beneficial to everyone.” 

Additional resources for readers:

101 Great Books for Kids

District 65 Reading List

EPL Kids’ Book Lists

African American Literature Book Club (all ages)