Students wrote on the theme: “Why is it important to read books about different kinds of people?”

By Emily Shem-Tov

Emily Shem-Tov

Why do we need diverse books? This is the question BookSmart Community Advantage asked students for the Second Annual Gift of Reading Essay Contest. The contest helped to kick off the annual Gift of Reading Morgan Hill program, which for the past 20 years has gifted a new or like-new book to underserved students in our local elementary schools for the holidays.

This year, BCA provided more than 500 books to local students, distributed last month through school principals. While even more challenging than ever due to the pandemic, people throughout the community stepped up to make donations of books and funding to make the program happen.

The mission of BCA is to foster literacy and community through reading, writing, art and educational programs. BCA was formed in January 2017. It is part of the Morgan Hill Community Foundation and is closely aligned with BookSmart, which has been operating in Morgan Hill for more than 25 years.

BCA believes all children should have access to books of their own. The essay contest helps to draw attention to this worthy cause. It also provides a chance for us all to hear about the importance of books and reading directly from local students. Students in fourth to eighth grade participated in the contest.

This year, BCA used the essay contest to kick off a new initiative called “Diverse Books For Our Community.” This program aims to provide the classrooms and school libraries of our community with a variety of curated books that provide a more diverse variety of stories and images as well as books that directly address anti-racism and social justice. BCA is raising money to fund this program through community donations, grant writing, and in-store donations at BookSmart.

The program was created in response to the challenges we face as our nation grapples with the aftermath of an ongoing pandemic that has disproportionately impacted people of color as well as incidents of police brutality that have raised awareness of the devastating impact of systemic racism. It is more important than ever that the children in our community see themselves and the world around them reflected in the stories and images presented in their classrooms. Children’s literature is just one part of fostering a child’s positive sense of self and others and raising an anti-racist and anti-bias child.

We know books can be both a mirror to see one’s own experience reflected and a window to the experiences of others. We believe that having a diverse set of people and experiences reflected in the available books will expand and enrich that experience for our local students. So for the essay question this year, we asked school children to write about the impact that reading books about different types of people — both people like them and different than them — has on them.

Here are the 2020 BookSmart Essay winners in three grade categories who wrote under the theme of “Why is it important to read books about different kinds of people?”

First-place winner for fourth grade

Dara Hargreaves, Charter School of Morgan Hill:

It is important to read books about different kinds of people because it shows us their point of view and how they feel about things. We experience different things in our everyday lives and we don’t usually get to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. I think that reading about other people helps us feel empathy and imagine what their lives are like. It’s good to learn about the different types of people that experience different things from us.

When I read about different people than me I feel mixed emotions because it’s something about people who have hard lives and have no money and that makes me feel sad. But when I read about people with good lives and a loving family that makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside. When I read about those people I get to know all about them and all the challenges they faced. It makes me a better person knowing that I want to help people that have faced hard challenges and easy challenges in their everyday lives.

I feel excited when I don’t find people in books like me because I enjoy reading about people who are different from me and have different stories to tell other than ones like mine. Reading about others lets me think about how I feel or want to be. I feel more set on creating my own destiny, not following someone else’s story. I have always liked being unique and special from others around me. Maybe someday I can be that person that people enjoy reading about.

First-place winner for fifth grade

Chloe Grotz, Stratford School:

It is important to read books about different types of people for many different reasons. One reason is that when you read books about different types of people, you can learn about different ethnicities. You want to learn about different ethnicities because you can learn more about that specific culture, and its history in order to relate to that character more.

It is also important to read books about people who are different from you. You could try to put yourself in someone’s shoes. You could also put yourself in that character’s situation in order to relate to that character better. This will help you make a connection.

When I find people who are different than me in a book, I want to read that book because I am very curious about what would happen next. I am currently reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone written by J.K. Rowling. Even though the character named Hagrid is taller than me, I could make a connection with him, like he has a funny personality.

Although characters in books and real people can be very different, we are all unique in our own special way. Understanding these differences helps us be more compassionate to everyone.

First-place winner for eighth grade

Kyle Strenfel, Charter School of Morgan Hill

Reading books is a passion shared by many people. Age certainly does not discriminate and choosing a book to read often varies depending on a particular interest. As I browse the sections at the library, I often think: would this book suit my liking or teach me something? Will the chosen book influence and challenge my thinking in a way that will make me a better person? Will the book’s characters, influence my thoughts, actions, emotions, question my views about the world, and drive me to change? It is for these very questions that I believe it is important to read books about different types of people.

To truly deepen one’s knowledge, we must read about all different types of people. People in the past and present. Famous people. People of different races and ethnicities. People living in poverty or wealth. People from different countries. People of like and different mindsets.

Understanding people’s lives through written words helps us to gain a sense of clarity of the hardships some face, their successes, their failures, their belief systems, and their impact on the world we live in. Having this knowledge drives my own curiosity about how others think and do and helps me to be more socially aware, and empathetic towards fellow man.

Reading serves a purpose. It can educate, stimulate, empower, and serve as an escape while allowing one to sense, feel, and understand what it is like to be in another individual’s shoes. Understanding this gives me a sense of satisfaction, contentment, and degree of excitement. Unlocking the mystery of a character different from me drives me to read more about them or others like them. Truthfully, we can only grow and learn when we are exposed to content different from our own ways of thinking.

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