Illustration by: Aixa Perez-Prado
WNDMG Wednesday Guest Post by Jorrel Brinkely
We Need DIverse MG is delighted to host a new author this week. Jorrel reached out to WNDMG a few months ago with an idea for connecting his work as an author and school psychologist to the importance of diverse representation in middle-grade fiction, and we were excited to be able to feature a fresh voice on this always-timely topic. Thanks for your post, Jorrel!
My Journey, by Jorrel Brinkley
Hey everyone! I’m so excited to write a blog post this month for “From the Mixed-Up Files… of Middle-Grade Authors.” Having written a middle-grade novel and working as a school psychologist, I’d like to take this time to talk a little bit about the importance of diverse books and early literacy in reaching children in high-needs elementary schools.
Stereotypes and Microaggressions
As a teenager and in my adult years, I’ve been on the receiving end of various stereotypes and microaggressions:
“Do you rap or play basketball?”
“Imagining you riding a horse is like imagining Tupac riding a horse.”
“You look like someone I saw on a ‘Most Wanted’ billboard.”
I would say, “C’mon guys, read a book!” But given the small amount of prominent diverse books available when I was a kid, I guess I’m not surprised. I’m not disparaging any of those books, but we definitely needed more.
The White Default
Growing up, I can recall only a few books that I read in school featuring Black authors or characters. More often than not, the ones I read featured historical figures (e.g. think days of slavery or around the Civil Rights era) or were African folktales. Important for sure, but not always relatable. Most of the books that I’ve read centered around White characters. I remember that while I was writing my debut book, Gus & Major: Obedience School, I had an idea for another story. As I imagined what the cover of that book might look like, I realized that I had envisioned a White protagonist. Why was that? In my head, I saw a main character that fit with most of who I’ve seen my entire life in books, TV shows, and movies.
“This Boy Looks Like Me!”
It is important for children to not only see characters or authors who look like them but are also relatable. There can be much encouragement and hope for children when they read a book and realize they are not alone. It also gives them an idea of what they could be besides the stereotypical representations found in media. On a personal level, my three year old son was looking at a picture book. He is half-black, half-Latino. As he perused the pictures, he looked up with excitement and said, “This boy looks like me! And this is you, Daddy!”
Lacking Early Literacy Skills
As I mentioned earlier, not only am I an author, but I am also a school psychologist working in a high-needs elementary school. Most of the evaluations that I conduct with students deal with reading difficulties. Many times, I’ve found that the students I’ve tested do not have a learning disability. Rather, they simply lack the early literacy skills that are usually acquired before entering Kindergarten. Now, there are a multitude of factors that play into this, but that’s a discussion for another time. As they go through school, what I’ve typically seen is that they lack foundational reading skills. These skills build on each other every year as the curriculum becomes more challenging. The issue is that by the time the students are in their middle grade years, many have been unable to overcome the ever-increasing gap; that is their expected performance and their actual performance. Mix in a grade retention or two, and we have a serious problem. The students are over-age and seem to have lost interest in school, especially in reading. They do not see its importance; many have told me that reading is too hard. On top of that, when you place a book in front of them with characters that do not look like them or with an unrelatable story, reading it is the last thing they want to do. And let’s face it, smartphones and social media are stiff competition.
Enter diverse middle grade books.
Relatability in Diverse Books
Admittedly, my debut book features animal characters, BUT I was very intentional in writing a story that the students at my school and similar schools would find relatable. Why? In my experience, the children I’ve worked with are more interested in stories with diverse characters or those with similar experiences. They also seem to be more invested in the outcome of certain characters. In addition, when they can empathize with the author, that is a bonus. Not only are children interested in the story, but they are more willing to read other books by said author.
Each year at my school, I typically mentor a group of fifth-grade boys in which we discuss music and think about the messages conveyed in songs. When I ask them about their favorite rappers and why they listen to their music, I’m often told that they can relate to some of the rappers’ struggles. They feel like they’re not alone and that there’s hope that they can make it past their own personal struggles too. Without examining the veracity of some rappers’ statements, it’s important that we don’t miss that gold nugget. These boys connected with artists that looked like them, talked like them, and had relatable stories. I can almost guarantee that they would read a book written by their favorite rapper!
((For more articles on why representation matters, check out our WNDMG Wednesday archives))
What does this have to do with diverse middle grade books, Jorrel? I’m glad you asked. It’s all about making connections. Making connections with children through diverse books can help them process their emotions, provide language to what they are experiencing, and may even provide a framework for overcoming various challenges.
How do you attract students who don’t find curling up with a good book on a rainy day as exhilarating as you do? Give them diverse authors and/or characters and a relatable, compelling story. What if they are a struggling reader? Well, if they’re sitting and engaging with the book, that’s half the battle! It’s easier to target some of those foundational reading skills when interest and motivation are high.
On a few occasions, I’ve read part of my book, Gus & Major: Obedience School, to a group of third graders at my school. In it, I touch on topics such as fatherlessness, behavioral problems, and forgiveness. Most of the story is drawn from my time working with children. The students were immediately able to relate to the story and characters, saying things like, “So-and-so does that in my class all the time,” or “I used to act like him in the beginning of the year.”
I’m grateful that there is an increasing number of diverse books being published. What messages do we want to send to our children? How do we ignite a love of reading in children lacking basic reading skills and maintain their interest? Let’s expand their imaginations to what else is out there, and let’s introduce them to more diverse voices early.
About Jorrel Brinkley
Jorrel Brinkley is a school psychologist and the author of his debut chapter book Gus & Major: Obedience School. He has worked with elementary school-aged children from a variety of backgrounds for over 15 years. His goal is to engage children’s imagination through entertaining, relatable, and thoughtful stories. When he is not writing, he is spending time with his wife and two boys.
Connect with Jorrel