President Truman was wrong.
It was sometime during this season of 2019 that I ran across a quote by President Harry Truman that says ““Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers” and the many riffs that boasted that readers make great leaders.
It made me irritated. Not all leaders are readers, as it turns out.
(I mean, I will not mention the President that some said had an allergy to reading-one page memos, briefs…probably emails too.)
And not all leaders who are readers are people I want in leadership– from the Supreme Court, state officials, or CEOs of multimillion dollar companies, to the school board president or the chair of the HOA sub-committee.
I want leadership that sees others, thinks about the interests of others, and then really works (not just gives the good ole effort) to problem solve, create, and collaborate so all are heard and seen and that the work set before them gets done. I want leadership that knows how to lead– which, I know, is easier said than done! And that’s why approximately 4.8 billion leadership books are written each year. 4.8 billion. Gosh, if every leader was a reader, then why do we need so many books?!
I want leadership that realizes they don’t know everything! That there are life experiences that are different from their own and that there is something to learn, appreciate, and value in the real, valid experiences of others. I want leadership that is diverse, inclusive, growing, changing, shifting, and willing to serve.
That’s why it matters that leaders are readers – but it also matters what they are reading, and who they are learning from.
In book talk, I’m talking about books that are “windows and mirrors” , that is to say: mirror books reflect a person, their culture, gender, family, religion or community. These books give you the warm fuzzies and the feeling that someone has been eavesdropping on your Momma, your family reunion, and even your diary…(insert dramatic music). Books that are windows take the reader to a place, time or introduce them to people they are unfamiliar with in a way that gives the reader a peek into your house.
But, aren’t diverse books the hip thing? Well, yes and no.
Because here’s the reality. Diverse books, even as popular as they are on social media and Bookstagram, are still not in the hands of enough readers.
While the creation of the organization We Need Diverse Books in 2014 has helped promote and shift the publishing culture, we still see no change in the number of authors of color. The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center shared a 2020 report in which they found that only a small percentage of children’s and young adult books featured characters from underrepresented backgrounds. For example, approximately 50% of children’s books featured white characters, while only around 10% featured Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) characters. This also extends to the overall publishing industry. The 2019 study by Lee & Low Books, titled “Diversity in Publishing,” found the publishing industry predominantly white (76%), with only 4% identifying as African American and 6% as Latinx. If the industry doesn’t reflect diversity, how can the books they pass through be printed?
As a parent, I realized this when my new reader found a fascination with the book series, Mo Jackson.
I was thrilled until, after a few books into the series, I realized that the author is not a Black man, but rather a White author of the popular Cam Jansen series that features a young white girl and her wild adventures. What does a White man know about the lived experience of a Black family?!
So, do we still read the Mo Jackson series? Yes. Sigh.
To my early readers, this book acts as a mirror to their lives. However, what the author can’t do is communicate with authenticity the true values of the Black community. And that’s when, as a parent who is obsessed with books, I’m looking for more books by authors of color to act as mirrors for our mixed race kids.
Complicated? Kinda. But, I got you. I promise. I’ve read through a LOT OF JUNK and have sorted out what’s really good and worth reading.
Here are 3 words that run through my head when I’m looking for a book for my kids at the library or to gift to my goddaughter.
Window: Does this book feature a story that is different from our own?
Mirror: Does this book feature a story that teaches or highlights the beauty of an experience that might mirror their own?
Kitchen Table: Would this book stretch or encourage conversation in our home?
Connection, for me, is everything. It’s likely for you too. That’s why we reread the same book to our kids for the millionth time. It’s why I lecture myself when I’m being a pain in the ass about reading aloud a book to my 7 yo that’s at their reading level instead of soaking in the opportunity to read to him.
Because at the end of the day, if we want to talk to our kids about the injustices that exist in the world, we must keep the doors of communication open with them. We have to reread that book, ask them what they like about it, and find a new book they might like so they know we care.
Or, maybe this is just in our house.
My kids will forget I care when all they can hear me say is “pick up your backpack”.
Now, do I go into utter panic when purchasing a book as a gift in fear I won’t find the perfect book? Yes.
But I’ve mastered this art over the years, and I’m happy to say that I have a full list of titles for you that are perfect for gifting!
There’s no point in stressing yourself out. Let me help.
If you’re new to reading diverse books or you haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about how to curate your home library just start with three books. One that is a window, a mirror and one that acts as a conversation starter at the kitchen table.
Let’s help one another out. Pick three books that are a window, mirror and act as a conversation starter at the kitchen table. Comment below.