New Brunswick

Kids' books matter: Mount A project aims to create more diverse preschool library

Professor Susie Andrews and her students are reading and cataloguing every picture book at a Sackville preschool in an effort to learn more about how libraries can 'celebrate differences' by including diverse titles that depict a range of perspectives.

University prof, students cataloguing 4,000 picture books to determine whose stories are being shared

Susie Andrews recently won the Herbert and Leota Tucker Teaching Award, in part for her work with students to study the library books at Sackville Playschool Inc. The award is Mount Allison University’s highest recognition of teaching excellence. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

Sitting in a tiny chair at Sackville Playschool Inc., surrounded by picture books and colourfully decorated bulletin boards, Susie Andrews introduces herself as a "scholar of stories."

You might expect this Mount Allison professor of Eastern religions to be teaching ancient Buddhist texts in a lecture hall, but for the past semester, she and her students have been studying 4,000 children's books that date back to the 1970s.

Their goal is to read and catalogue every picture book in the Sackville Playschool Inc. library in an effort to understand whose stories are being told, how they are being represented in those stories, and how to make sure book collections are celebrating diverse groups and people.

"Our question is, why do representations matter?" Andrews said. "Why does it matter what it is that we read together?"

Mount Allison students Denise Loar, Oorja Gonepavaram, Josh Cormier and Em Doucette are part of a group that has continued to work on a project about children's books even though the course ended weeks ago. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

She reaches for one of her favourite books called Fauja Singh Keeps Going and reads one of her favourite lines aloud. On the cover, a man with a white beard and a yellow turban runs across a finish line.

"You know yourself Fauja, and you know what you're capable of. Today is a chance to do your best."

Written by Simran Jeet SIngh, it tells the story of the oldest person to ever run a marathon, and the challenges he faced along the way.

"If we know representations matter for things like empathy, self-confidence, community building … well then we probably want to know what it is we're reading together and how we want to grow."

Mount Allison professor Susie Andrews shares this story by Simran Jeet Singh as an example of the diverse books that are available and can be part of our libraries for young children. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

For Andrews, the stories we share show who we think is important, what we value, and how we think about others.

"I was trained working with stories from the 600s, working with stories from the 1200s that mattered too — significantly. As I turn my attention to the stories told in my home, my community, my country or my continent, all of a sudden it is bringing to life conversations … and creating energy."

Power of representation

Allison Butcher, the director and a teacher at Sackville Playschool Inc., said that when Andrews approached her with the idea of examining the books in their library she jumped at the chance.

"I'm aware of the amount of nuclear white families or nuclear rabbit families for goodness sakes, that are in our books," she said.

Over the past few years, Butcher has made an effort to update the school library to include stories from all perspectives.

Watching the university students go through each and every book in the library has made her "proud of some books and maybe not as proud of others."

Allison Butcher reads to her preschool class of 10 children three to five years old at Sackville Playschool Inc. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

Butcher said that every day an educator has the power to "make or break a child," and the things she shares with them can have a huge impact.

She recalled a book she once read to her class. One of the characters was a little boy who was wearing a pink shirt.

During the story, one of her students spoke up and said, "Boys can't wear pink — my dad said boys can't wear pink."

Later, Butcher took the young boy aside.

"And I said, 'You know what? Boys can wear pink,'" she said. "'Maybe Dad doesn't like to wear pink, but some boys can. You can.'"

Butcher said children only know their little piece of the world, and as they grow, they may discover "their little piece of the world doesn't quite fit who they are inside."

"What we're trying to do with these children, all children, all people, is to build empathy and to build that connection with others and an understanding that even though people are not the same, we are all the same."

Students bring diversity to research

The students who signed up for the course come from all disciplines, but most had taken previous classes with Andrews, and said it was her enthusiasm that brought them back.

"We are all just here for the ride," commerce student Oorja Gonepavaram said with a laugh.

That "ride" has been so meaningful that even though the course has concluded and the marks have been issued, many students have continued the project — spending a few hours every week reading and cataloging the books in the preschool library.

The students believe that this work is the best way to stop "othering" from continuing in future generations. Othering is a verb that means treating or seeing someone or a group of people as different from yourself. 

Oorja Gonepavaram came to Sackville from India to study commerce at Mount Allison, where she is going into her fourth year. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

Gonepavaram said she and many fellow international students have found it difficult at times to fit into small-town New Brunswick.

"So to see how certain ideologies get instilled in people through a young age, through the books they read is very important to address."

The project has made her look at the stories we share and tell children in a much different light.

"As a queer person in India, I have never seen any representation … and it's funny because we have such a large, especially transgender population back home, and they were never represented in anything," she said.

Josh Cormier of Shediac is going into his fourth year in commerce at Mount Allison. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

Commerce student Josh Cormier of Shediac is non-status Mi'kmaq. His mother is white and his father's family is from the Esgenoôpetitj area.

Growing up, he "got the benefit of passing as white," but Cormier saw the treatment of Indigenous people in a way most white people don't.

"Everybody deserves a chance. If you can't see yourself depicted in a positive light growing up, what do you do? How can you dream? How can you hope?"

Em Doucette of Stratford, P.E.I., is going into her fourth year at Mount Allison University where she is studying international relations. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

Fourth-year student Em Doucette of Stratford, P.E.I., said that as an international relations major, she has studied tribalism and believes this project will help end the "us-versus-them mentality."

"What we talk about really matters," she said. "If you grow up seeing only one type of person your entire life, and then you meet someone new, no matter what you're going to see them as different."

"That's why we have to work on this, to make sure that the next generation is tolerant and even more than tolerant —accepting."

Denise Loar, 37, is going into her third year at Mount Allison University where she is studying psychology. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

At 37, Denise Loar is a mature student who decided to return to university to study psychology after a close family member revealed she was transgender.

She was surprised at how difficult it was to find support for that transition in their lives and hopes to offer help to others.

"I think often about how, as an adult, we're drawn to the self-help book section in the bookstore — because we want to relate to people, we want to know that we're not the only person experiencing this particular story."

Loar wonders what difference it could make if more books for children and young people depicted members of the LGBTQ community.

"Does it give them an opportunity to mirror themselves in a book and recognize, 'Hey — maybe this is how I feel and this is who I am,' to allow them to start to explore their own personal development?"

What are they finding?

So far, Loar and her classmates have discovered that the majority of children's books portray a "white nuclear family, two kids, picket fence, a dog and a cat."

Sackville Playschool Inc. has collected 4,000 picture books, some of which date back to the 1970s. Director Allison Butcher says the work of Mount Allison students will help with continued efforts to have a more diverse library that represents and celebrates everyone. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

"It was surprising to me how many more animals were featured in children's books, versus people of colour, people of different ethnicities," she said. "That is not something that I ever realized."

Listening to her students talk, Andrews looks on intently, occasionally raising her arm in a silent cheer when they make a good point.

"This is it for me," she said of working with her students. "This is my wake-up and it's my go to sleep. It's the source of meaning and joy."

Butcher hopes that at the end of this project, the library at Sackville Playschool Inc. will be "rich and have a wide selection that meets not just what people think they need, but what they need and don't even know it."

"We are growing more and more toward celebrating differences rather than tolerating or accepting," she said. "I think as a community we're becoming more and more like that, which is pretty wonderful to see."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Vanessa Blanch is a reporter based in Moncton. She has worked across the country for CBC for more than 20 years. If you have story ideas to share please email: vanessa.blanch@cbc.ca

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