My parents were immigrants and Holocaust survivors. They did not speak of the terrible events they must have witnessed or the losses they endured, but instead they taught the lessons of the Holocaust and a love of freedom and equality. They made success in education and goal setting into imperatives for me. Many children do not have an influencer in their lives to help them set high standards to aim for, and more importantly to guide them over the bumps in the road of life.
I am the first person in my family to go to college, and as a result the first person with an advanced and terminal degree and the first person to become a teacher. My parents were diverse achievers in their own way, but just as no books will be written about them, no books will be written about most of the influencers and diverse achievers on whose shoulders they stood.
This book highlights the lives, challenges, and accomplishments of diverse achievers. Embedded in much of the children’s literature I have chosen for this work are the ways in which each diverse achiever learned and applied with rigor the skills that made them great. In many texts there will be connections between diverse achievers and how people important in their lives helped them to achieve greatness, although it is impossible to predict which individuals will benefit from these contacts and influences.
One of my goals in this book is to emphasize the importance of perseverance and hard work as components of great achievement, by raising thoughtful questions around how the diverse achievers came to become accomplished and the challenges they faced, sometimes just because they looked different from the majority. It took many of the subjects of this work years to become diverse achievers. They could have given up, but instead they persisted.
Not everyone has the benefit of strong shoulders to stand on, especially when they are young. It is my hope that young readers will find self-confidence in knowing that, even though a mentor or role model might not immediately be part of their personal circle of influencers, they could, at some point in their lives, be there. I also hope readers can learn how to apply the same principles the mentors of the diverse achievers in this book used to benefit those achievers.
Suggestions for using this book
Children’s literature is an outstanding medium through which children and adults can learn about diverse achievers, and much of what needs mending in our society today can be addressed with children in the school setting and in their homes as families read together. I have written this book to enhance this learning opportunity by stimulating discussion and critical thinking about lessons of fairness, tolerance, and real rather than perceived differences and stereotypes. This process can be teacher- and parent-centered, and the book is designed to be a guide for parents, children, and teachers to get the most out of the stories by building an awareness of some of the characteristics common to many achievers, and some of their challenges as well.
For African Americans, currently the largest racial minority in the United States, “the legacy of slavery continues to have an impact on black people’s position in American society today” (Pew Research, page 8).
Many of the books in this first volume highlight the lives, challenges, and subsequent triumphs of slaves and/or their offspring.
Although this first volume will concentrate on diverse achievers who are primarily African-American, with books written largely by African-American authors, it is intended for an audience as varied as the population of America, the whole melting pot. An important goal of this book is for children and parents who are not African-American to enjoy reading about people who differ from them and most of the population in looks only, helping to break down stereotypes of bigotry and discrimination, and for families of African-American readers to learn from the stories about other African Americans who are outstanding contributors to our American society.
One common thread will be noted: each achiever took advantage of opportunity, and accomplished goals through hard work and perseverance, often in the face of adversity. This is highlighted in the discussion questions.
There are eighty-two works of children’s literature referenced in the first volume, written largely by African-American authors and many illustrated by African-American illustrators. They address issues such as the impact of slavery, civil rights, equality and equity, education, ongoing discrimination, and racism. The work also considers other timely related topics and societal concerns.
For each of the eighty-two books there is a series of questions for discussion, written responses, activities, and/or research. There is also a suggested grade level range for the use of the book. In many cases, the books are best read by the parent/teacher to the child(ren). In some cases, the parent or teacher may decide the book can be read independently by students. The questions can be used in whichever ways the parent/teacher deems appropriate. Following the questions, for many of the books there are suggested books for further reading, again by the teacher to the class, by the parent to or with the child, or independently by the child. The choice is left to the teacher/parent.
Teachers at all grade levels should be able to find ways to address key subjects by harnessing the discussion questions individually with their students, in groups, or in an entire classroom discussion. Teachers may also become the catalyst for encouraging parents and children to read at home about the diverse heroes in these volumes. This can lead to discussions between students and their parents and other adult mentors, which teachers can revisit in their classrooms.
Readers will learn how racial, religious, and other forms of discrimination have made it difficult for diverse achievers of earlier generations and still today to reach their goals. They succeeded despite these headwinds. I hope that this will lead to a grass roots understanding that our society can no longer tolerate discrimination of any kind. Stamp it out once and for all. How wonderful it will be if we can arrive at a time when everyone has an equal chance to become a diverse achiever.
I have reviewed hundreds of children’s books to arrive at the ones I have selected and the questions I have set out. This volume contains a selective bibliography of other contemporary children’s literature that I intend to be helpful for readers as they expand their horizons with their families and as teachers seek more opportunities with their classes. The bibliography may also be a way for parents and adult mentors to develop discussion around literature not covered directly in this volume by applying similar questions to those I have outlined here. The bibliography alone may be a resource for families and educators to find more stories about diverse achievers.
Children need role models who look like they do. There are hundreds of diverse achievers from minority populations who are unknown to most people and who deserve recognition for their achievements, and whom others can emulate. Children also need role models who look different but have similar targets for achievement to break down barriers and to challenge implicit discrimination.