Striking a balance between children’s books written a long time ago and books written today can be frustrating and difficult. It seems that books of long ago often give us the very best in living books, since they are written in a narrative style and often contain beautiful illustrations. However, modern books give us updated language and non-offensive perspectives –books which promote diversity and cultural awareness. Which is more important? Of course, both are important.
Although these are the advantages each gives us, books of both eras also give us their share of disadvantages. Too often older books contain racism, stereotypes and an unbalanced view of history. Meanwhile, modern authors often forget that the best voice in which to really reach children is through story. In books today, the illustrations are often garish and facts crowd the pages, making it difficult to connect to the knowledge being shared.
There are so many curricula publishers available today that it can be overwhelming. Many use modern books only, some use older books only and some balance selections from both. Teachers and parents struggle to find what works best for their family.
This can be made even more difficult when we need to distinguish between curricula which have been marketed to appeal to our sense of beauty and the ideal and those which contain books, ideas and teaching methods based on depth and principles. Some curricula publishers are very good at looking very inviting. It’s easy to forget to look carefully at the books included and it’s the book choices that will really matter in the end. Which books are best? Should I choose curricula which may clash with my education principles but use modern books? Should I choose curricula which uphold my education principles but use older books? Are there any choices which allow me to have both? How can I find a curriculum with books that are both living but yet strengthen cultural awareness and teach sensitivity?
Here are some questions which may be helpful in distinguishing between books which are living books, but yet are diverse and culturally sensitive. It is difficult sometimes, but it is worth it to find the curricula which will provide the best of both worlds -beauty and diversity.
Are the illustrations not only well-done artistically, but do they convey messages of beauty and sensitivity?
It’s not enough for illustrations to be well-drawn. Illustrations are images and images convey and evoke emotion. If they depict scenes which are demeaning to others, then they will evoke emotions in our children which we may not mean for them to feel or learn.
Has offensive language been entirely removed from older books which are marketed as “updated”?
It’s not enough that only some of the language was changed in the new version. Leaving behind a few stray offending words or phrases doesn’t really accomplish the goal of being updated.
Does the curriculum revolve around a history text which was only partially modified, but yet offers a diversity package to offset this?
It’s not enough to use a history book as a main text which contains a great deal of stereotypes and racism and then add a few additional books to help diversify it.
However, a history book could be used as a main text which doesn’t contain embedded messages of racism and stereotypes, but yet still may not fully represent all people. Books which represent alternative perspectives, races and cultures could be added to give this main text the balance it was lacking. In other words, it’s one thing for the full story to be missing and add books to amend this, but it’s another to send the wrong message and add books to correct this. You can fill a void but you can’t erase a terrible message.
Is the book not only free of offensive language and illustrations, but also free of offensive ideas?
It is not enough for a book to have removed specific words or phrases. There is more to what message you send then just using specified code words such as “negro” or “savage”. It is the subtle language, or even lack of language, used in describing specific situations and events that often reveal the message being conveyed. One way to check the messages relayed in different books is to pick events known to have been historically controversial between different races and read them. Is this event covered in an unbiased manner? For example, if you are considering books for American History, then consider looking at these events: King Phillip’s War, Columbus, slavery and other explorers who interacted with Native Americans. You can’t fix an older book by just removing the offending language; often more than that will have to be changed.
We may wish that updating older books could be as easy as changing out a few words, but often this is not enough. Some publishers have been able to successfully do this and some have not. Look closely at the books included in your curricula choices. Be careful that you are not lured by the appeal of beautiful book covers and photo shoot arrangements. You may not wish to exchange all of that appearance of beauty for that which does not really contain it.