Nine Morgan Hill elementary schools received 200 books for students that describe a broader human experience

Photo by Emily Shem-Tov
Cinda Meister of BookSmart Community Advantage shows some of the diverse books ready to be distributed.


By Marty Cheek

The stories children and teens read in books can shape their perspective of the world for the rest of their lives. That’s why nine Morgan Hill elementary schools in May received more than 200 books that provide young minds with a broader experience of humanity.

The nonprofit BookSmart Community Advantage developed the “Diverse Books for Our Community” program to make sure classrooms and school libraries have books that both serve as a mirror to see one’s own experience reflected and a window to the lives of other people. The program provides books offering a more diverse variety of stories and images as well as books that directly address anti-racism and social justice, said Cinda Meister, co-owner of the BookSmart bookstore and the community advocate of BCA.

Diversity in storybooks is vital for children in a pluralistic society such as America, she said.

“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 to them,” she said. “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.”

Morgan Hill schools hold a diverse student population, yet the images in many of the books found in their campus libraries and classrooms often do not yet reflect that rich diversity, she said. Carefully selected volumes provided as part of the Diverse Book for Our Community program include topics such as physical disabilities, race, ethnicity and gender. For a list of titles or to donate, visit BookSmartCommunityAdvantage.org

“Having diverse literature available helps to create a culture of understanding of each other, and it provides powerful tools for teaching students about social justice,” Meister said.

The first round of the program was funded by private donors and by a grant from the Morgan Hill chapter of the American Association of University Women, said Emily Shem-Tov, the BCA vice president. Business and individual donations also help purchase diversity-topic books for the schools. The program still seeks funding support from the community to provide additional materials to school libraries, chosen to cover the appropriate maturity and reading levels of the school populations.

Shem-Tov looked at the question of diversity of reading material for children and how a broader range of topics can help society by encouraging people to appreciate a wider range of the human experience. With two daughters, she wanted to make sure her family explored many perspectives of life.

“I looked at my own bookshelf honestly and I saw that I was not doing a good job making sure that the books I read and the books I was making available to my children really reflected the world,” she said.

That made her start looking wider at making sure diverse books were available to all children in the Morgan Hill community.

“We (at BCA) put together a program to make sure any kid coming through our town could have books around them that lets them see themselves but also see other reflections of the world out there,” she said. “School libraries are often underfunded where they don’t have the resources to keep up with the new books. We thought this was an area where community groups dedicated to books and education, maybe we can make a difference.”

For decades many books found in school libraries or classrooms heavily favored a White culture. More inclusive books selected for the BCA program include stories with characters reflecting ethnic groups including Latino, African, Native American, Asian and Pacific Islander stories. Books also reflect the diversity of religion, disabilities, and  body types.

“It’s just important to have all of the races represented,” Shem-Tov said. “Kids are kids. But they need to read stories where kids are different from them or see themselves represented in any way shape or form.”


BCA’s Diverse Books Essay Contest

The Diverse Books project was kicked-off last year with an essay contest for young people. Students wrote on the theme: “Why is it important to read books about different kinds of people?”

Dara Hargreaves

Dara Hargreaves, a fourth grade student at Charter School of Morgan Hill, won first-place for her grade level.

“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,” she wrote in her essay. “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.”

Chloe Grotz

Chloe Grotz of Stratford School, the first-place winner for fifth grade, wrote in her essay: “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.”

Marty Cheek