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How to build an inclusive book collection for your school

Settle down on the carpet and delve into stories that help all your pupils feel seen, says Rachel Clarke

Rachel Clarke
by Rachel Clarke
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PrimaryEnglishHealth & WellbeingScience

We all like to belong. It helps us feel valued and builds our sense of self-worth. In recent times there has rightly been an increased focus on ensuring that our book stock represents the children in our classes.

Behind much of this focus is the work of legendary educator Rudine Sims-Bishop who has referred to books as offering children ‘windows, mirrors and sliding glass doors’.

It’s a vivid analogy that shows how books give children a view into new worlds, reflections of their own world, and the chance to step through a portal into the world of the book they’re reading.

To hear Rudine Sims-Bishop talking about her analogy, it’s well worth watching this short video:

While Rudine focuses primarily on the experiences of black and minority ethnic readers, in my work with schools, I’ve been expanding this to include all pupils who need their differences and uniqueness represented in the classroom book selection.

This means that I’ve been recommending books that represent children from different ethnic and cultural groups, children with disabilities, with fears and worries, those who live in different types of families, or who are exploring gender roles, and so on.

By doing this I’ve helped the teachers I work with ensure their pupils see people that look like them as main characters in stories, they’ve seen families in all their forms, and they’ve met real and fictional role models that encourage them to fulfil their aspirations.

Listen closely…

Creating a collection of representative books is a good starting point to ensuring that all your children feel a sense of belonging, but what can you do with those books once you’ve got them? Certainly, you need to display them, you need to give children access to them and you need to encourage your pupils to read them.

But weaving your representative books into your storytimes is one of the best ways you can give your new books the focus they deserve.

Why storytimes? We often talk about storytime as a place where we can expose children to vocabulary and sentence structures they may not find in their own reading books.

After all, the books we read are usually more challenging than the stories pupils are likely to read as part of the school scheme. Storytimes can also be a place where we choose to read books that introduce children to themes and ideas that they may not otherwise connect with, and also with narratives that represent their view of the world.

There’s another important dimension too: primary school children tend to value the choices made by their teachers. If we read a book to them, it gains a certain amount of kudos that it wouldn’t have if we just put it on a shelf without comment. Storytime is where we can be book pushers.

I’m always moved by this comment captured in From Striving to Thriving by Stephanie Harvey and Annie Ward, from a child called Michelle: ‘The best books are the ones the teachers read aloud… and I can’t find anything as good.’ \

To avoid Michelle’s situation, once we’ve read our representative books, we need to put them in our book corners so they can be seized upon by the children.

But this comment also touches on another important aspect of shared storytimes, and that’s the emotional bond created when we read to our pupils.

When we share books that represent the members of the class, we’re showing that we value everyone; that we all belong. We strengthen relationships and create a classroom community through reading. We also create memories that last longer than the stories we share.

Finding books that represent all children regardless of gender, ethnicity, disability or any other perceived difference is a vital part of building a sense of belonging in our classrooms, and storytimes are a quick and easy way for us to bring these books to the attention of our children.

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