Partnering with the NEA Foundation to bring diverse books to students: Q&A with First Book founder Kyle Zimmer, Part 1: Stories for All Project™

The NEA Foundation has partnered with First Book to bring books with diverse authors and characters to students. The Foundation and First Book share a vision of a great education for every student, no matter their background or ZIP code, and we’re excited to support First Book’s Stories for All Project™.

We asked First Book President and CEO Kyle Zimmer to tell us a little more about the special collection our two organizations are  bringing to educators. Here’s what she had to say.

What are the NEA Foundation Special Edition Diversity and Inclusion books?

Have you ever found a book that made you feel understood in a way that you hadn’t felt before? Or one that sparked your curiosity about a culture or a lifestyle that you never knew existed?

This is exactly the kind of magic that the NEA Foundation Special Edition Diversity and Inclusion Books provide to children. The NEA Foundation recognizes that there are simply not enough books that reflect diversity and foster inclusion. Research shows that only 11% of children’s books in the past 23 years include multicultural content and only 6% of books published in 2016 are by a Black, Latino, or Native American author. This is a staggering failure, especially when you consider that 37% of the U.S. population are people of color.

With the support of the NEA Foundation, we are now bringing four multicultural children’s books by authors of color to special paperback editions, exclusively available on the First Book Marketplace, which provides brand new, low cost books and resources to educators serving kids in Title 1 Schools.

From the Indian boy who learns how to make roti with his grandfather to the African American boy who processes the challenges in his neighborhood by expressing himself through drawing -- the NEA Foundation Special Edition titles and their characters inspire children to embrace their heritage and explore other cultures, facing fears and finding their own voices along the way.  (Note: These books are written for various age ranges, for students 5-10 years old.)

Why do educators need these stories?

Frankly, the educators we work with explain the need best.

We recently received a letter from a teacher in Hawaii whose students were reading books by Jason Reynolds, an award-winning African American author, and writing journal entries every day. She wrote,

“Most of us have a very limited understanding of the African American community…it would be an understatement to say that books and the discussions that they lead to were, in most cases, life changing. At the very least, stereotypes were challenged…They showed a deeper understanding of the content than expected and made personal connections that crossed ocean and culture.”

I think her comments capture the power and importance of this work. No matter your background, books can validate your experiences, challenge your presumptions, and expand your horizons. Books open a window into another perspective.

Because of the NEA Foundation, teachers now have critical new resources upon which to build essential lessons of Social Emotional Learning (SEL), such as empathy, respect, and self-awareness. Researchers have confirmed that children's literature reflecting multiethnic cultures told by authentic voices can have a powerful impact on the central elements of SEL as well as increase interest in reading and academic performance¹. The NEA Foundation has brought these authentic voices into the lives of children in need – and our country has never needed this more.

What do these stories teach students?

Some lessons are explicit while others are more subtle. Simply reading children’s books that feature diverse characters with a range of experiences helps kids learn about other cultures, family dynamics and struggles. Each of these new books elevates our commonality and also contains wonderful insights that surprise the reader. These stories also provide teachers with an opportunity to launch into more explicit lessons about cultures or social emotional skills such as respect.  

Diversity is a tough topic, especially these days as we’re faced with jarring media reports and a climate of political discourse that is too often laced with bigotry. We cannot ignore that our country is wrestling with racial tensions. Educators serving children in need are at the front-lines of these challenges, but they often lack the resources they need to promote tolerance and celebrate diversity.  

That’s why we also include a free, downloadable reading guide that focuses on cultural competency lessons with each of the four NEA Foundation Special Edition titles. These tip sheets focus on the powerful social emotional themes in each book, providing suggestions to help educators create opportunities for student learning in a variety of educational settings. The books draw out lessons such as understanding other cultures, maintaining cultural traditions, self-reflection, and empathy.

These resources empower teachers to instill essential skills in their students that will expedite the healing of these tensions now and in the future as this next generation grows into adulthood.  That is an extraordinary legacy.

We are thrilled to work with First Book on this amazing project. Stay tuned to learn more about our partnership and what comes next in part 2 of our interview with Kyle.

You can find the books Kyle talked about, and many more, in the First Book Marketplace. Use our code, UNITE50, to save 50% on the NEA Foundation special edition titles!

¹ https://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/pcstats.asp

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