Charnaie Gordon, an author and dedicated advocate for diverse children’s books, discusses the trends she’s seen in childhood literacy, why fostering a love of reading is crucial, and why representation in reading matters.
You are a huge advocate for diversity in media. Why is it so important for readers, especially young readers, to read and see people like them in their books?
It’s important for young readers to see themselves in books because children are growing up in an interconnected, diverse society. The impact of children not seeing themselves reflected in literature and media during their formative years can be severely damaging, causing them to have low self-esteem.
Children (and adults) need to be constantly reminded that they can achieve anything regardless of how old they are, how they look, or where they live. A lack of representation can hinder a child’s ambitions and aspirations while they are still young and their minds are impressionable. I want my children to know that excellence can look like them, too! Even something as seemingly small as seeing a similar hairstyle in the pages of a book can reaffirm the way people see themselves and encourage them to value their uniqueness.
Beyond representation, having diversity in literature is important because it helps people become more compassionate toward others and allows them to help push the lever toward true equality. In essence, diversity can allow us to see beyond the superficial outward differences and look deeper for common interests, similar likes and dislikes, values, beliefs, and attitudes. Being able to empathize and sympathize with diverse characters means that we as people are more open to understanding others in general. I think it is a crucial aspect to promote, more so in the time and place we live in today. We all have a story to tell.
You say that in your world “books are a total necessity.” Why is that, and what impact have you seen books have on people?
Yes, books are a total necessity in my world – they always have been since my childhood.
I first fell in love with books when I was seven years old. I was a curious child and wanted to read everything I could get my hands on. Books have always been my “first-class ticket” to any destination I want to visit around the world. They help me to escape into other dimensions, go on endless adventures, and have amazing experiences without leaving the comfort of home.
Not only are books entertaining, but they also help enrich my mind, give me new ideas, expand my vocabulary, provide solutions to problems, and challenge my perspectives about life.
While the Internet and television are useful in their own ways, nothing can compare to a good book. Whether you want to learn a new language or delve into the intrigues of space, there is a book for every situation.
I have seen books have positive impacts on my life and the lives of my children. They helped me tremendously during the early years of my parenting journey. I learned strategies that I could use with my children, which heled me gain more confidence as a mother. Reading aloud with my children daily since they were babies helped them become confident readers at an early age. Books have also been useful for enhancing my kids’ imagination, speaking skills, and vocabulary. It brings me joy when I hear my children say they enjoy reading as a hobby instead of viewing it as a chore.
My goal as a parent is to try and never make reading feel like something kids must do to make their grown-ups happy. One of my favorite quotes about this topic comes from Mem Fox, who said, “When I say to a parent, ‘read to a child,’ I don’t want it to sound like medicine. I want it to sound like chocolate.”
You have co-written and edited “Race Cars” and “A Friend like You.” Tell me a bit about why you chose to write/edit these books, and what are you hoping to accomplish with these books?
I decided to join “Race Cars” because not only did I enjoy the storyline, but I also understood the importance of this story as another valuable resource for parents, caregivers, and educators to use with children when discussing race.
My role in this project was to serve as the editor. I was brought in to look at the previously self-published version of the book through a critical lens. I tried to dig deeper, make suggestions, and refine some of the language and the overall flow of the story. My edits resulted in a revised story that is fundamentally the same in the overall plot, but different in that it now has new characters, a different ending, and an updated discussion section.
I hope families take away that everyone deserves fair and equal treatment. We all deserve to feel seen, heard, and loved no matter what we look like. In a world where there is so much noise and varying opinions, I hope the future looks brighter for my children and all children of the next generation. Learning to coexist in the same space, the same world, as others who look different than you does not have to be hard.
I chose to co-write the book “A Friend Like You” because having genuine human connection and meaningful friendships has always been important to me.
Since March 2020, many of us have been in near isolation from loved ones. During uncertain times like these, it can feel alien and uncomfortable to make new friends, and to reconnect with old ones.
I hope people use this book as a teaching tool for social emotional learning. The book is suited not only for young audiences — it will surely resonate with adult readers as well. “A Friend Like You” serves as a reflection of the social power of friendship, and its publication is a testament to the power of two friends with a common goal: to reunite individuals through literature.
One of the interesting things about friendship is that it evolves as we grow and mature. For young children, friendships can feel magical! Toddlers and elementary-aged kids may imagine their friendships to be like embarking on fantastical adventures each time they get together with their friends. During the tween and teen years, many kids define their friends based on how much their friends show they care about them. By the time you are an adult, many people develop a keen sense of self and are just looking for friends that will support them through all the difficulties of life.
What makes for a good friend in elementary school is different from what makes a good friend in high school, and these shifts continue in our 20s, 30s, and across our lifetime. It is my hope that people of all ages will read this book, gift it to their friends and loved ones, and cherish it for many years to come.
You started this amazing, successful nonprofit called 50 States 50 Books, which aims to close the literacy gap within the United States by providing underprivileged children with diverse books. What has been the most surprising or frustrating problem that you have learned regarding literacy in this country?
The most surprising fact I learned about literacy in the United States is the consequences of illiteracy and the larger impacts it can have on society. Illiteracy can negatively impact our health, quality of life, crime rates, education, employment, and more.
If you are a literate person, one of the best things you can do is encourage a love for reading in the next generation. This is part of my “why” for doing the work that I do each day.
Another surprising fact I think families should be aware of is that children who read at least 20 minutes a day are exposed to almost 2 million words per year. Yes, that’s 2 million words per year! Let that sink in.
The most frustrating thing I learned is that the United States ranks 125th out of 194 nations for literacy. This is concerning to me (but not surprising) given that the United States is a first-world country. And here’s another frustrating problem: 2 out of 3 children who cannot read proficiently by the end of fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare.
How has COVID-19 affected reading from what you have seen in your personal life and within your nonprofit?
COVID-19 has had a positive impact on my own personal reading. The pandemic has made me read more books in a year than I have in previous years. Prior to COVID-19 I would read about 20 to 25 books per year on average. In 2020, I doubled the number of books I read, and in 2021 I read 52 books over the course of a year.
The biggest effects COVID-19 has had on our nonprofit are: shipping delays, books getting lost in the mail, and a decrease in receiving donated books from the public. Times are tough for a lot of people and donating monetary gifts or books may not be high on most people’s list, which is understandable.
What, in your opinion, is the best way to improve literacy rates within the United States?
I wish I had all the answers to this question, but I don’t. Improving literacy rates in the United States is such a tall order that won’t be easily solved, unfortunately.
I think for starters, we need to find ways to help children fall in love with words and lean into more books and less devices. I have a love-hate relationship with technology, speaking as a former computer programmer of over 15 years. I love that technology can help bring us together, educate us, and entertain us. However, technology has also been known to have some negative effects on us — specifically on small children.
Next, I think a lot of issues we face in the United States (and around the world) have to do with access. The idea of having access really hit me hard once I became a parent.
As a child, there were several things I wanted to do, like become a Girl Scout, participate in after school activities, go to the local library, and go to summer camp. However, because my family and schools didn’t have access to those things or reliable transportation to get me there, I wasn’t able to partake in any extracurricular activities or get transported around town by my parents like some of my peers.
During my childhood, I wished if I was ever blessed to have a family of my own I’d put my kids in a school system that allowed them access to do some of the things I wanted to do as a kid.
That was a long-winded way of saying we need to ensure all children (and illiterate adults) have access to books, libraries, reading materials, reading programs, and resources in school, at home, and in prisons.