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Austin, Garfield Park, North Lawndale

Here’s How You Can Help West Side Students Access Culturally Diverse Children’s Books

The Open Books | Open Minds program is putting books featuring Black, Latino and diverse characters into the hands of kids on the West Side.

Children picking reading materials at Open Books.
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NORTH LAWNDALE — A new initiative is encouraging parents to stock their homes with culturally diverse children’s books — and put those same books in the hands of West Side children.

Through the project, Open Books | Open Minds, people can buy a set of children’s books online and a matching set of books is donated to a West Side family in need. The books feature characters with a broad array of cultural backgrounds.

Sets of three or five books grouped by grade level can be bought on the Open Books | Open Minds webpage.

The project was launched by Open Books, a literacy nonprofit, in response to a stark absence in children’s literature of people of color and other characters who would reflect the experiences of many young readers.

A 2018 analysis of more than 3,200 children’s books showed about 10 percent of the stories featured Black characters, according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, which tracks diversity in children’s books. Only 7 percent of the books featured Asian characters, 5 percent featured Latino characters and just 1 percent had Indigenous characters.

“That’s particularly challenging when we are trying to encourage kids to read and develop a love of reading, when they are not seeing someone that looks like them, had similar experiences as them, reflected on those pages,” said Eric Johnson, executive director of Open Books.

The sets of books donated by the program will benefit families at Sumner Elementary School in North Lawndale.

“When you have authors, illustrators of color, they bring a different perspective,” Principal Fatima Cooke said. “Students in North Lawndale would benefit [from] having storylines that talk about students in the city, or a perspective of someone who has lived a life similar to mine … . When that happens, kids are more connected to what they’re learning.”

Credit: Provided
A set of five books from the Open Books|Open Minds initiative.

Books featuring characters of color can also help families who buy the books learn about people with different experiences and perspectives, Cooke said.

“We call them mirrors and windows: seeing themselves in books, but then being able to look into other cultures that are different from themselves,” she said.

The value of reading cannot be understated, as surrounding a child with reading opportunities helps them build strong language skills and robust vocabularies from an early age, Cooke said.

Strong literacy skills also “increase the chances that a child will be successful in school and in life,”Johnson said.

The best way to support literacy and help children get interested in reading is to make sure they have relevant literature available to them in every facet of their lives, Johnson said. That means having books at school, access to a public library and having a catalogue of books at home, he said.

But not every family has an extensive home library. The divide between families who have books at home and families who don’t is “pretty stark across racial and class lines,” Johnson said.

“We see a lack of books in the home, which is a significant opportunity loss to help to build a culture of reading, no matter where a child is, no matter where that child comes from,” Johnson said.

Sumner’s partnership with Open Books and other literacy organizations such as Lawndale Reads has been critical for helping close the gap, Cooke said.

“How much money you make, that shouldn’t matter as to why kids would have access to books in their home,” Cooke said.

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

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