How to Build an Inclusive Classroom Library

books classroom library diversity equity grand conversations inclusivity interactive read aloud social issues Jun 06, 2023
bottom of image is line of books organized by rainbow colors and 5 kids reading books above that

If you were a kid (or a parent) between 1983-2006, you probably are familiar with the iconic PBS show, Reading Rainbow. You immediately think of LeVar Burton and can even sing the theme song. The mission was to promote the love of reading in kids and encourage adults to create rich literacy environments for children. While you can still stream old episodes of the show today, kids watching the show now aren't getting exposure to anything written in the years since the show stopped taping new episodes. 

As a child, the most enjoyable aspect of watching Reading Rainbow was hearing diverse stories, including realistic fiction, fairy tales, tall tales, fables, pourquoi tales, and more. Afterward, the show would suggest books we could find at the library. As kids, we found these books fascinating because they covered relatable topics or gave us a glimpse into other cultures. 

So why am I talking about Reading Rainbow?

Ideally, what the show did to motivate children to become successful, avid readers is what a classroom library today should do for students. There should be books with characters that look like the kids in your classroom–these should be mirrors for kids to see themselves in. Just as important is having books where the characters don't look like the kids in your classroom–which act as windows into the experiences of others.  

While the business of book publishing still has far to go in publishing books from more BIPOC authors, there are more children's books with diverse characters than when I was in elementary school. We can only hope the industry catches up to the fact that since the 2015-16 school year, the majority of public school children are now BIPOC

Inclusivity doesn't just mean having more BIPOC characters. We also need stories with neurodivergent characters and LGBTQ characters. The library should include picture books, chapter books, and graphic novels. Younger kids should have access to decodable texts and texts that are purely for enjoyment. There should be non-fiction on a variety of high-interest topics. 

"If we don't have diverse stories and characters, we're doing young people a tremendous disservice. We're not preparing them for the real world."

Linda Sue Park, author of Cavern of Secrets

Books matter...a lot

Educators are responsible for enhancing our students' critical thinking abilities. It is essential for them to comprehend that individuals possess distinct perspectives towards the world, and they can cultivate this understanding with the help of empathy and learning about various points of view. Hence, it is imperative to remain receptive to diverse outlooks and read extensively on topics that explore contemporary issues in our society.

Thankfully, in most of our country, you can put great books in your students' hands that help them understand the world, their sense of identity, and social responsibility. You can explore issues around race, gender, abilities, and mental health. Despite what certain lawmakers are doing in some states to ban books (Once again, I'm looking at you, Florida! But let's not forget Texas, Missouri, Utah, and South Carolina.), we owe it to our students to give them a safe space to discuss these topics.

After reading an engaging book that explores important issues, my favorite discussion technique is to ask students to have a grand conversation. Their conversations when the teacher takes a step back are amazing. Hearing kids discuss complex issues will restore your faith in future generations. 

Here are ten of my favorite picture books to use for grand conversations:

Currently, most books banned are YA novels, but secondary teachers out there, you'd be wrong if you think you can't read picture books to young adults. Some picture books lend themselves to critical conversations in your classroom by doing an interactive read-aloud with a grand conversation afterward. 

“‘Diversity’ should just be called ‘reality.’ Your books, your TV shows, your movies, your articles, your curricula, need to reflect reality.”

—Tananarive Due, author and American Book Award winner

Building an Inclusive Classroom Library

One of the things I tell new teachers who are trying to build a classroom library is to find books wherever they can. The summer break is a perfect time to tackle this. Thrift stores, Buy Nothing groups, apps like Offer Up, and just putting out a request for books on all your socials are some of the most economical ways to do it. If you send home Scholastic book orders, you can also save points to get free books for the classroom.  

However, when you want to expand the diversity of your books, you might have to put them on your teacher's wish list on Amazon, do a Donors Choose campaign, or ask your PTA for money. We want you to use your money to purchase books as a last resort!

Start by picking up some of my favorite interactive read-aloud books above. Of course, your school librarian is also an excellent source for you to identify books to add to your classroom library, but if you need some other places to look, here are some sources for good titles:

Common Sense Media: Books with Characters of Color

Common Sense Media: Books That Promote Diversity and Inclusion

New York Times: Our 15 Favorite LGBTQ Books for Kids & Teens

Good Reads Diversity Book Lists

Classroom Libraries and Recommended Books by TCRWP

A Mighty Girl: Social Issues book list

"We're getting to see some really exciting stories that are only going to create more writers and establish deeper empathy from those who aren't from a marginalized community."

Adam Silvera, author of History Is All You Left Me

What can you do if your district has banned books?

If you are teaching in a place where books are banned for containing LGBTQ characters or themes, discussing race and segregation, or you are scared about bringing in a text that could get you in trouble, some books can indirectly address the topics. One book I love using with younger elementary students is Clancy the Courageous Cow by Lachie Hume. The kids love the humor (cow wrestling with moves like the Helicowpter) and quickly pick up the themes of equity and race, but the characters are from two different cow breeds. 

Another couple of books is the My Purple World books: The World Needs More Purple People, and The World Needs More Purple Schools by Kristen Bell and Benjamin Hart. Their themes of embracing who you are, staying curious, finding common ground, and advocating for what's right are accessible for students to understand. 

What other thoughts would you add when helping a teacher build a diverse classroom library? Have any other titles to recommend? 

Please share them on Facebook or the contact page. 

Stay connected with news and updates!

Subscribe to the Elm Tree Education mailing list to receive the most recent updates, exclusive offers, and be notified about new blog posts.

I don't like SPAM. I will never sell your information, for any reason.