Urban Children’s Literature in Short Supply, Scholar Says

By Lesli A. Maxwell on February 6, 2012 (on Education Week)

Does it seem possible that over the last decade, only one book series for early readers—those in the 2nd and 3rd grade range—features a main character who is Latino?

That rather stunning discovery was made by Jane Fleming, a professor at the Erikson Institute in Chicago, with her colleague Sandy Carillo, a literacy and language specialist who works with English learners in a school district in suburban Chicago.

Actually, the one series the two educators did find featured a young Latina. There were no series in what Fleming calls “transitional chapter books” that feature a Latino boy. Transitional chapter books use text and illustrations to help young readers build bridges from just learning to read to reading more efficiently, and are, Fleming says, essential in helping kids build fluency and stamina for longer, more challenging texts.

Because these short chapter book series feature recurring characters and settings and have illustrations that support the text, they can be especially helpful to struggling readers and English learners, Fleming says.

But when it comes to reflecting the race, neighborhoods and experiences of many English learners and urban schoolchildren, the selection is shockingly thin.

Fleming and Carillo have done a thorough survey of the children’s literature landscape, and came up with 210 short chapter book series that met their basic criteria. The series had to have at least three books in the collection and had to have been published in the last 10 years. The researchers also weeded out all of the series that weren’t “realistic,” meaning those that featured animals as main characters or those with stories that were fantastic. That left 40 series. And out of those, just one—called Get Ready for Gabí—had a Latino character. Series featuring African-American main characters were more plentiful, though most of them were girls.

Fleming and Carillo also found the inventory of books featuring urban scenes or neighborhood settings that would be familiar to many city kids was woefully small.

Fleming knows this issue well, and not just from doing exhaustive surveys as an academic. The professor works closely with urban school librarians and classroom teachers to help them build book collections with selections that students in city schools can relate to. She’s also started a nonprofit organization called Kids Like Us with a mission of building a search engine that librarians and teachers can use to find titles for their students, as well as raising money to provide the books to schools.

Fleming and Carillo are in the middle of writing their paper on these findings. For teachers and librarians interested in getting in touch with Fleming, you can find her contact information at the Erikson Institute.

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