Stories Can Help Us Fly with Dr Denise Chapman

Dr Denise Chapman is a passionate storyteller, digital media-creator, and spoken word artist who lectures in children’s literature.

One of the most intimate and warmly memorable childhood moments I can recall is experiencing stories that were shared by both my parents and grandparents. I can still feel my mother’s soft arms wrapped around me as she told stories about being her brother’s Harlem superhero and the occasional battle to protect his honour from bullies mocking his deafness. I can still feel my brother and I elbowing each other as we jostled for the centre stage of Ezra Jack Keats’ picture book ‘A Snow Day’, confidently held in my father’s hands. It was the first time I had seen a protagonist with rich mocha skin who was going about his everyday routine socially unimpeded and with a contagious joy for discovering new things without fear. I can still feel the disappointment when my grandfather would say “And now ya know, Dat’s how it go,” signalling the end of a set of trickster folktales told to him by his father’s father. As a young black American girl, this storytelling fuelled us forward and gave black folks the opportunity to see themselves as free.

At the time, I did not realise that what I was experiencing was both magical and subversive. My brother and I were the first in our family to experience childhood post-Jim Crow era (the practice of legalised racial segregation in the United States), and so the stories shared by my parents and grandparents were a collective gift, a resource of strength and hope. As Audre Lorde shares, “We were never meant to survive”, and so my family’s stories were a plea for our survival once the teaching baton was passed from home to the school system built on White supremacy. The stories my family shared (re)presented and (re)imagined black people and other marginalised peoples as protagonists in order to disrupt the dominant discourse we would encounter at school. These narratives validated our humanity, shifting us from an enslaved people to people with wings who had the power to fly, like in Virginia Hamilton’s book ‘The People Could Fly’.

However, once my brother and I entered the school grounds for the first time, the figurative armour gifted to us by our family seemed to rust, as we found ourselves drowning in stories that almost always centred our teachers’ experiences as middle-class, non-disabled, White women from the U.S. South. I felt distant from the stories presented in school, and this made learning to read hard. The lives of ‘Dick and Jane’ and their dog ‘Spot’ made me feel alone and separated from my peers whose lives were like our teachers.

Looking back, I now know that my brother and I needed the experience of books that represented what Rudine Sims Bishop describes as Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors. “When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part.”

Fast forward 40 years, and the need for more diversity in children’s books and other storytelling media remains. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center notes that while the percentage of children’s books portraying diverse characters has increased over the last two decades, children’s books depicting specific ethnic minorities as primary characters were just under 27% in 2019, which is significantly less than the percentage of children’s books portraying animals/others characters (29%). Approximately 3.1% represented the LGBTQ community and 3.4% represented persons with a disability. The majority of children’s books (42%) portrayed primary characters who were White. Lee and Low Book’s 2019 Diversity Baseline Survey notes that the publishing industry also remains primarily White (76%), cis woman (74%), heterosexual (81%), and non-disabled (89%).

In the article entitled ‘No Longer Invisible: How Diverse Literature Helps Children Find Themselves in Books and Why it Matters’, Lorna Collier notes that children want to engage in critical conversations expressing their views and connections with diverse texts, however teachers note that hunting for diverse books can be difficult and time-consuming. Even more disconcerting, teachers whose classrooms were predominantly White felt uncertain as to how they could share books whose cultural backgrounds did not match their own and felt that there was no beneficial need to share books portraying diverse characters to their predominantly White, non-disabled students. This disinterest or indifference can lead to selecting texts that contain problematic representations that perpetuate negative stereotypes and have harmful impacts.

As a teacher and educator and a parent of two young girls, how can I as a parent both advocate and agitate this system that has not moved significantly since I was a young girl seeking a mirror of self in the literature and stories shared at school? While I went to school in the United States and my daughters are attending school in Australia, the teaching and publishing workforce in both countries do not fully reflect the diversity of the general student population. How can we bridge this disconnect at the individual, institutional, and structural levels? I put forward that we need a concerted commitment to make changes and a collective support for those everyday choices for social equity.

If my parents and grandparents were trying to support my brother and I as children in these current times of Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and Disability Rights Advocacy, I believe that they would be taking action, advocating for change, and putting forward movements like #OwnVoices, #DisruptTexts, #CripLit, #DVpit, #BuildYourStack, WeNeedDiverseBooks and Tolerance.org. I can imagine my family members insisting that this complex issue of seeing self in stories is the beginning step in preparing and arming our young children with the tools for making our future a more equitable one. Our children deserve to see true mirrors of our society, mirrors that are representative, inclusive, and equitable.

Children’s literature and other media can help children to build bridges and engage with people they may not encounter in their everyday lives and find connections to work together when they may not share common ground. Author Michele Norris notes, “Words are this connective tissue that allow us to listen and to find each other”, and I believe that stories that are representative of our society fuel us all forward towards social belonging and the liberation we all need.

Dr Denise Chapman is a passionate storyteller, digital media-creator, and spoken word artist who lectures in children’s literature, early literacy and new media/technology at Monash University. She uses poetry, oral stories, children’s literature, and social media content as windows for transformative, emancipatory opportunities. Her research and creative art centre communities experiencing marginalisation and employs narrative methods to illuminate inequities and put forward social change.

Website https://research.monash.edu/en/persons/denise-chapman
Twitter @DrDeniseChapman