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Authentic Voices

The story of the Eberts Memorial Library of Diverse Books

Of the 3617 children’s books documented by the Cooperative Children’s Book Centeras published in the United States in 2018, only 401 featured African Americans as main characters, while only 202 were written by African Americans. This means that, at best, only half of the relatively few books featuring African Americans were written by people with actual life experience in the African American culture, or only 5.6% of all children’s books published in 2018. The statistics for other peoples of color were even worse.

As Lisa Delpit said back in 1998, “We must keep the perspective that people are experts on their own lives” (p. 297). It seems to us, as a matter of principle, that all peoples have a right to their own stories. At least some of the books available to children should reflect their own cultural background authentically. In this age where the topic of diversity permeates much of our social discourse, it is important that all of us be able to read books written by diverse authors in their own words to gain true inter-cultural understanding. This is the basic principle around which the Eberts Memorial Library of Diverse Bookswas developed. We interviewed Dr. Cindy Gray Eberts, who is the developer of this library, for this blog.

Cindy Eberts is a European American who grew up in a college town in Montana; she grew up in an academic family where her parents had interests in psychology, anthropology, art, and archaeology. In college, Cindy also majored in psychology, with strong minor concentrations in anthropology and the arts. She eventually earned her Ph.D. in the cognitive science program in psychology at University at Illinois. Her dissertation focused on experimental aesthetics, specifically the recognition of artistic styles. So, she brings a love of psychology, the arts, and cultural diversity, as well as a personal interest in children’s literature, to this diverse books project.

At Illinois, Cindy met her husband Ray Eberts, another student in the program, and later, Ray took a faculty position as a cognitive engineer at Purdue University. Cindy spent her professional life teaching research methodology and statistics courses in various departments at Purdue, while raising their two boys. Ray and Cindy also worked together with various programs serving economically struggling communities in Lafayette, Indiana, where Purdue is located, particularly with the interdenominational Lafayette Urban Ministry and its after-school program. After Ray’s untimely death over a decade ago, Cindy became even more involved with the mission that was near and dear to their hearts. It was for Lafayette Urban Ministry that Cindy created the Eberts Memorial Library of Diverse Books.

So, how does this background qualify Cindy to create a library of diverse books for children? On the surface, it doesn’t, and she readily admits that. Yet in reality, her background in psychology, culture, and aesthetics, as well as her interest in children’s books has been invaluable in her quest to develop an impressive list of books for diverse children.

Cindy first became aware of the paucity of books for children of color during while reading aloud to young children in the after-school program, which she did almost daily. She saw that the donated books typically available in programs like the one run by Lutheran Urban Ministry were mostly those no one else wanted, often (though not always) in poor condition and of little interest to the children attending these programs. Moreover, these books were rarely about children who looked like them, sounded like them, or who engaged in activities that seemed authentic to them. So, the libraries at these centers were basically ignored by the children, with good reason. Unless a volunteer like Cindy read these books to them, children would rarely pick one out for themselves, and soon, Cindy sensed for herself that something was wrong. In other words, she ran into the same problem faced by many parents, librarians, and teachers have when trying to find good books for the diverse children that they serve --- the lack of authentically written children’s books featuring children of color.

Cindy began to think about collecting and donating books herself, to create a better, higher quality library of children’s books for the after-school program. Knowing that the existing books in the library contained little content that the children found compelling, she rooted around to find better books for the children, but, she says, “at first the effort was a little scattershot.” Then in November, 2014, she read Brown Girl Dreaming, a memoir in verse by Jacqueline Woodson, and was struck by a poem on pp. 227-228 called Stevie and Me:

Every Monday, my mother takes us

to the library around the corner. We are allowed

to take out seven books each. On those days,

no one complains

that all I want are picture books.

Those days, no one tells me to read faster

to read harder books

to read like Dell.

No one is there to say, Not that book,

when I stop in front of the small paperback

with a brown boy on the cover.

Stevie.

One day my momma told me,

“You know you’re gonna have

a little friend come stay with you.”

And I said, “Who is it?”

If someone had been fussing with me

to read like my sister, I might have missed

the picture book filled with brown people, more

brown people than I’d ever seen

in a book before.

If someone had taken

that book out of my hand

said, You’re too old for this

maybe

I’d never have believed

that someone who looked like me

could be in the pages of the book

that someone who looked like me

had a story.

After reading this poem, Cindy’s goal pivoted. Cindy understood that she had to find books that the children in the program would relate to. Cindy did not set out to create a set of books that were broadly diverse --- this was not an academic exercise, after all --- but rather she wanted a decent set of books for the kids that attended the Lutheran Urban Ministry after-school program (approximately, 60% white, 20% African-American, and 20% Latino). She included First Nations books as a nod to her home state of Montana. The primary focus was finding and reading white, African-American, Latino and First Nations authors. She also focused on finding books with beautiful illustrations done by illustrators like E. B. Lewis, Kadir Nelson, and Jerry Pinkney for example. But in particular, as she ran across books that seemed to be about non-white cultural groups, she included them.

Originally, Cindy went about gathering of books for this collection organically, as she describes it, picking out books from bookstores designed for one cultural group or another. But, one weekend, she spent the entire weekend reading the stack of books featuring African-Americans that she had picked up. She realized that she was “really feeling some of them, and really NOT feeling some of the others.” She noted, “Some were, as Woody Guthrie would say, ‘way down yonder in the minor key.’ But [instead,] somebody is singing it in the major key, and they don’t have the cadence or the rhythm right.” So she put the books in two piles: the ones that rang true to her, and ones that did not. Then she Googled the authors, and to her surprise (or perhaps not so surprising, in retrospect), without exception, all the ones that rang true to her were written by African-American authors, and virtually all the ones that didn’t were not.

At that point, the mission for her library crystalized. Cindy made the decision to include only books written by authors who came from the backgrounds that they were writing about. Searching the literature, she learned that academics call this feature cultural authenticity. Armed with this new vocabulary, she went on to read a book edited by Dana Fox and Kathy Short (2003) called Stories Matter: The Complexity of Cultural Authenticity in Literature, which she recommends highly to anyone interested in this topic. She also read an article by Rudine Sims Bishop (1990), Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors,that she viewed as an intellectual guide. This article makes the point that all children can benefit from reading culturally authentic books from groups not their own, but that it is critically important for children from cultural minority groups to have access to books written by and about people from their own cultures.

These writings validated Cindy’s own observations and solidified her determination to pursue the creation of a library of culturally authentic books, an experience she describes as “personally transformative.” While Cindy recognizes that every author has a right to write about anything they want, she feels that culturally authentic voices are particularly important for children to hear, and read. She feels there are plenty of storytellers from every cultural background who can write the stories of their own cultures, without having others write those stories for them.

The current library contains a list of more than 500 books designed for children that have been vetted for their cultural authenticity by Cindy. The children’s library dedicated in January 2016 at the Lafayette Urban Ministry of Lafayette, IN has these books in two specially designed bookcases. The website for this list of books is currently under development, and we will update this post once it is publically available In the meantime, Cindy’s shared a short list of her favorite culturally authentic books, which we present below. She will send you her longer list if you message her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Eberts-Memorial-Library-of-Diverse-Books-11401…. In any case, we hope this blog helps you to see how a someone with a curious mind and a singular mission can make a unique and personal difference for children’s literacy in her own community.

Cindy Ebert’s Top 20 Culturally Authentic Diverse Books

Sherman Alexie Thunder Boy Jr.

Nikki GrimesMy Man Blue

Angela Johnson I Dream of Trains

Angela Johnson Wind Flyers

Julius Lester Black Cowboy Wild Horses

Joseph M. Marshall III In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse

Pat Mora Remembering Day

Christopher Myers My Pen

Walter Dean Myers Bad Boy

Jerdine Nolan Thunder Rose

Brian Pinkney Max Found Two Sticks

Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely All American Boys

Jason Reynolds Ghost

Pam Munoz Ryan Esperanza Rising

Allen Say Tree of Cranes

Gary Soto Chato’s Kitchen

Clifton Taulbert Little Cliff and Porch People

Rita Williams-Garcia One Crazy Summer

Jacqueline Woodson Coming on Home Soon

Jacqueline Woodson Brown Girl Dreaming

References

Delpit, L. (1988). The silenced dialogue: Power and pedagogy in educating other people’s children. Harvard Education Review, 58 (3), 280-298.

Fox, D., & Short, K. (2003). Stories matter: The complexity of cultural authenticity in literature.US: National Council of Teachers of English.

Sims Bishop, R. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives, 6(3), ix-xi.

Woodson, J. (2014). Brown girl dreaming.London: Puffin Books.

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