In Andrea J. Loney’s picture book, “Bunnybear,” readers are introduced to a bear who feels like his most authentic self when he’s behaving like a bunny. He’s misunderstood by both his fellow bears and a group of bunnies, with the exception of one bunny, aptly named Grizzlybun, who behaves more like a bear. The story is filled with enticing illustrations, and plenty of humor, but at its heart, the book carries resonant messages about identity and acceptance.
It’s the kind of book that might not typically be found in the average elementary school classroom, but a partnership between the John Jermain Library and the Sag Harbor School District’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee is changing that.
Last year, John Jermain’s Teen Services Librarian, Kimberly Parry, sent a survey to Sag Harbor Elementary School teachers to get a sense of precisely how they could help diversify their classroom libraries. The teachers were asked about how they use their classroom libraries, the ways they incorporate diversity in their curriculum, and what groups or experiences were underrepresented in their current collections. The aim was to make sure teachers had the books they needed to expose their students to a wide range of topics, including race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, neurodiversity, socio-economic backgrounds and disabilities. Using data from the survey, Ms. Parry curated age appropriate selections for each grade, choosing from titles already in circulation at the library while also drawing on recommendations from other librarians, online resources, and other members of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee. The project was made possible by the financial contributions of an anonymous library donor, and Ms. Parry and the committee members tried to make sure that the majority of the books were available in both English and Spanish.
The books were originally supposed to be distributed to the school in the spring, but the pandemic halted those plans. Last month, the fruits of Ms. Parry’s labors were finally in the hands of teachers and students, as several “bins” of books were distributed to classrooms. Because of COVID-19 protocols, the students cannot take any of the books home, and the bins rotate through the classrooms (with sanitizing procedures in between).
Ms. Parry spoke about the importance of the project, and why diversifying classroom book collections was so important.
“Books can be mirrors or windows,” she said. “A book that is a mirror reflects back to you your own experiences. Lack of diverse representation in collections means that some of your students are never ‘seeing’ themselves in books. A book that is a window shows how other people experience life, and can help you learn about people who are different than you. Having books that are windows takes away the ‘otherness’ of people who might be different than you. It’s really important to start these experiences with children.”
Betty Reynoso is the assistant principal at Sag Harbor Elementary School, and she co-chairs the Diversity and Inclusion Committee along with School Superintendent Jeff Nichols. She announced the launch of the program at a recent school board meeting, and said she is excited it has finally gotten underway, after a months-long delay due to COVID.
“The hope is that these books will bring up discussion, reflection and conversation,” she said, adding that the committee is eager to continue partnering with the library to offer the same service to Pierson Middle and High School students.
“The teachers have been so excited about this,” she continued. “The feedback has been tremendous, and there are great conversations that have already started to take place. This was our hope, to have these conversations starting in classrooms, where kids feel safe talking about these things.”
Ms. Reynoso pointed out that another subcommittee of Diversity and Inclusion will focus on the kind of professional development that will help support teachers as they engage in these conversations, which can sometimes be delicate in nature, with their students.
Kate Berkoski, a first grade teacher, has been happy with the response from her students so far after reading several of the books from the bin that’s currently in their classroom. They read “Sparkle Boy,” by Leslie Newman, about a little boy who loves all things sparkly and glittery, and she said it was a great experience.
“This really opened their eyes to accepting all types of people and being understanding that different people like different things and are drawn to different interests,” she said. “We had a great discussion about the misconceptions of what is considered ‘girly’ and what is considered ‘boyish.’ The story really highlights the uncomfortable feelings that the older sister has with her brother always wanting to wear her things, but in the end, she comes to realize that that is just who her brother, Jessie, is. The students were really into the discussion and the kids were definitely able to relate. It was cool to see how they were able to come up with different examples of things in their life that related to the story.”
Ms. Berkoski said she also appreciated the book “Suki’s Kimono,” by Cheri Uegaki and Stephanie Jorisch, about a Japanese girl who lives in America. When Suki decides to wear her kimono and other traditional Japanese clothing to the first day of school, her sisters are embarrassed that she hasn’t dressed like the other “normal” kids. Despite some teasing, Suki retains her pride in her culture and heritage.
“It was a good message about being true to yourself,” Ms. Berkoski said.
Ms. Berkoski said she’s grateful to have the book bins, which have enriched her classroom collection.
“I’ve traditionally always had a rather large collection on Black history in my classroom and that will continue, but I’m super excited to have these other books that touch on so many other aspects of diversity that I felt were lacking in the overall school collection,” she said. “I think the kids do well with these discussions at this young age because it helps teach tolerance, acceptance and kindness and our hope is that they carry that message with them throughout their lives.”
Third-grader teacher Chris Martin also had high praise for the new book collections, saying his class was particularly enamored with “Bunnybear,” which Ms. Reynoso first presented to the staff during a faculty meeting over Google Meet.
“I felt like its messages of active acceptance and finding a place for everyone at the table really resonated with our third grade team,” Mr. Martin said. “Our small team feels pretty grateful for having received this specially curated basket of books from the Diversity and Inclusion Committee. Personally, I feel like the more the children can see different characters who often look and feel like they do, the easier it will be for them to find their way in an increasingly complex world.”