Diversifying literature? Talk to your librarian

The school library is the perfect place to showcase and support initiatives to offer pupils a broader English literature curriculum, writes Danuta Zalega

The school library is the perfect place to showcase and support initiatives to offer pupils a broader English literature curriculum, writes Danuta Zalega

1 Mar 2022, 5:00

The Black Lives Matter movement was a pivotal moment, kickstarting a hugely important opportunity to rethink our approach to how we reflect the lives of our students in teaching. In the wake of that movement, research from Penguin Books and the Runnymede Trust for their Lit in Colour campaign revealed that although 34 per cent of young people in England identify as Black, Asian or minority ethnic, fewer than one per cent of GCSE English literature students study a book by a writer of colour. This shocking data shows just how stark the problem of representation is, and the need for us to adopt a wider view of the books held by school libraries.

Since then, half of all state schools in the UK have responded to Lit in Colour’s call out to apply for a donation of books by writers of colour from Penguin for their libraries. But still too many schools have not yet considered how to diversify English literature texts.

And we know why. Research shows that teachers face challenges including lack of resources, budget and time, as well as a lack of confidence in talking about race in the classroom. But while support exists to deal with the first three of these barriers, that last one – confidence – is particularly pertinent.

The launch of new impartiality guidance for the Department for Education last week, stressing that teachers should exercise care in their teaching of “contentious” issues such as imperialism and racism, and specifically naming Black Lives Matter, could have a stifling effect. With many teachers already nervous about saying the ‘wrong thing’, we must be very careful not to deter them from speaking about race and representation. What’s needed is practical support for them to do so.

But in a sense, it’s about so much more than that, too. Curriculum doesn’t just take place in the classroom, after all. And making a more diverse range of texts more easily accessible isn’t just the job of teachers.

Curriculum doesn’t just take place oin the classroom

As a school librarian, I’ve seen students’ faces light up when they find a book that resonates with them, or a character that reflects them, their background and their broad aspirations for the society they want to live in. I’ve seen the buzz from students reading The Hate U Give, for example, who would never normally engage with a fantasy adventure story. Books create belonging, boost wellbeing and communication skills and increase our understanding of the world around us; and we can’t afford to limit who gets to experience that.

I worked together with the head of English at Lilian Baylis to spearhead our response to the lack of representation in the books we were teaching. I was given the opportunity to research and purchase books outside our previous remit – I chose 20 books per school year, in addition to copies for our library.

Fiction set in the Jacobean period, novels about World War II, fantasy, adventure and comedy all still feature largely in our library and teaching. But now we have many more Black authors on our shelves too. Fantasy from Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone and Neal Shusterman’s Scythe series sit happily in tutor reads alongside the historical fiction of Jewell Parker Rhodes’ Ghost Boys and Black Brother, Black Brother and Sharna Jackson’s High-Rise Mystery.

We have gained so much from broadening the options available. This isn’t about removing classic texts from the curriculum, which will always have a key place in the classroom. But we must broaden the stories and voices young people study and read. The books from Black authors we’ve selected cover similar ground and in just as high a quality; they just hadn’t been considered or chosen for inclusion in schools before.

We are making good progress, but there is still so much to do. And for those who haven’t started, there’s really no reason not to. Greater diversity of literature in schools benefits everyone. That’s not a contentious statement.

And while you put the support in place to empower your teachers to deal with controversial issues in the classroom sensitively, the library is the perfect place to get on with that broader goal.

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