Principal, student and teacher pose by Read in Color book box

‘Read in Color’ Program Mirrors the Lives of Children from Underrepresented Communities

Editor’s note: This is the fifth story in our ongoing series that helps people immerse themselves in neighborhoods by touring Little Free Libraries and learn about the community-building power of these book boxes. Other installments have featured libraries in RondoLinden Hills, Macalester-Groveland and St. Paul’s North End.

I can’t remember what I was reading when I learned about the Little Free Library (LFL) organization’s Impact Program in the fall of 2020. But it convinced me to apply on behalf of my school, the Early College Academy (ECA) in Brooklyn Center, an alternative high school housed in the same building as our school district’s daycare program. I clearly remember being denied, though. Instead, they wrote, “We would like to offer you our brand-new initiative, Read in Color.” We would be only the second participants in the program, nationwide!

The news astonished me. We would get a big, new red box and a stand for free, around a $500 value. To kick off the opening of our box, the Little Free Library organization gave us a box full of new books authored by people of color and centering characters of color and their stories. Then they sustained our library every three months for a year with boxes of high-quality books for children, middle-grade readers, young adults and adults — all, again, by POC authors and featuring people of color.

Being a Little Free Library steward made me part of a community of book lovers, and that made me happy, but to be part of an initiative this robust and inclusive showed me I would be doing something that mattered.

I have been an English teacher for 19 years. Predominantly, I’ve taught in schools with a majority POC student base. When I’ve strayed from these communities, I’ve always been called back. I have learned a lot about my power as a white, cisgender woman how I can use that power to harm or to heal. Our Read in Color box is one way I get to help others heal.

Long before I’d thought about or had a Little Free Library, I had classroom libraries. Somewhere during professional development sessions around literacy, I was introduced to Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s essay “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors,” which appeared in Perspectives: Choosing Books for our Classrooms. “When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society in which they are a part of,” she posits. I did not want to teach that lesson anymore.

Once I understood, I applied Bishop’s concept of books as mirrors. Readers, especially children and young adults — who are constantly forming and refining their identities — deserve to have books that reflect the strength, intelligence, creativity, beauty, resilience and subtitles of cultures they identify with, be it African, Asian, Black, LGBT, Indigenous, Latino, something else and/or a mix of many. In my classroom and curriculum, children would see themselves.

I got enthusiastic support from Early College Academy administrators and staff for the setting up and opening ceremony of ECA’s Little Free Library. Once officials deemed it unsafe to dig a hole in our school’s “front yard,” my principal, Dr. Constance Robinson, allowed me to get creative. I saw on LFL’s website that others had used huge planter boxes when digging wasn’t their best option. When I found the right box on Craigslist, Dr. Robinson handed over the credit card. Next, I purchased bags of rocks and soil in the landscape section at Home Depot. Then our head custodian, Dave Paulson, attached the stand to the LFL, anchored the stand in the planter box with rocks and filled it in with soil. He did most of this work outside in January.

Like many things COVID, we Zoomed the opening ceremony, so it lacked some luster. But Dr. Carly Baker, the Brooklyn Center Community Schools’ superintendent, attended to show her support. In the spring, Dr. Robinson planted hostas.

As an official steward now, I immersed myself in the LFL community. I joined an Action Book Club, which I heard about in an LFL email. Each group selects and reads a book, then creates a project around an issue they see in the book. I also regularly attended the community’s newly launched series, Unbound, a Zoom meeting in which participants discuss all things literacy and LFL related. So far, the series has had 21 episodes and hosted honorable authors, creative stewards and fierce advocates of literacy justice. Each episode is centered around thoughtful topics including my own favorite: “Kindness Isn’t Canceled.”

The idea of getting a box at home kept creeping back. Then, somewhere in the spring of 2021, it hit me: a windows box. I had already started what could easily be considered a “mirrors” box, but how was that addressing the reality that majority white readers tend to read only about their own kind?

“Children from dominant social groups … need books that will help them understand the multicultural nature of the world they live in, and their place as a member of just one group, as well as their connection to all other humans,” points out Sims-Bishop, a professor emerita of education at The Ohio State University.

I live in a predominantly white neighborhood in south Minneapolis, on a block with a K–8 public school and a dozen white children under the age of 10. Also, I had two small white boys of my own to raise. For this book box that would be visited mostly by whites, I could — and should — curate the same books I was getting in my official Read in Color box at school, the same books I kept stocked in my classroom and in our school library.

Within days I had found a cherry red, four-shelf miniature London phone booth bookshelf on Craigslist. Perfect, it was full of windows! But it was only almost perfect because it was made for indoor use.

I designed and ordered “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors” stickers with We Need Diverse Books, an organization I had learned about in my MFA program in writing for children and young adults at Hamline University. I dedicated shelves for children, middle grade, young adult and adult books. Then I sprayed it generously with a winterizing concoction from the local hardware store. Much to my chagrin, the box didn’t last a year. But it did leave a lasting impression.

We had tons of visitors and compliments. Books were flying off our shelves. Luckily, I live close to a local bookstore, The Irreverent Bookworm. After sorting through piles of good quality books at home and school that I had no use for anymore, I consigned them and got almost $80. I’ve used the money to purchase new Read in Color books. And as a steward and active LFL community member, I am attuned to book giveaways and ideas for how to stock and curate my book boxes without spending a fortune.

Also, the community was the answer to my totally weathered “windows” box. Last winter, the Little Free Library organization hosted a national book trivia night over Zoom. I was paired with a couple from Ohio (I think). Much to our shock and delight, we won the two-hour trivia contest and the award was a brand new Read in Color library. Since I already had this special LFL, I had no problem giving the couple the box. When I asked if I could get a discount on a box of my own as my prize, Little Free Library surprised me once again. They gave me a new, very large, winterized box of my own!

I painted it cherry red and put my custom stickers all over it.

Maybe the kids in my school and my neighborhood will remember my Little Free Library someday when they’re all grown up, but maybe they won’t. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that with the aid of LFL, I’m trying to make “enough books available that can act as both mirrors and windows for all our children,” as Sims Bishop writes, so “they will see that we can celebrate both our differences and our similarities because together they are what makes us all human.”

Indeed, as a result of the Little Free Libraries, I have seen more celebrations, more eyes opening to POC stories. Many white moms in my neighborhood have stopped by to select books for their children that center characters of color and promised to support Read in Color through intentional book selection. I have seen POC and multiracial families stop at our box and smile. “Yes, I do take any book,” I will say to passersby. “However, I curate those books that tell the stories of all people, cultures and experiences. I’m trying to help decentralize the white narrative.”

At school, the littles who attend daycare and their parents have chosen so many books that the library was restocked three times in one year with brand new books. The teenagers I teach love to see themselves in books. Often they start by referring to a novel like The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and simply say, “I want to read another book like that one.” All my students now have more books featuring people like them, and all are books they can keep. Usually, when I offer, they take two!

I’ve seen my students and others view books as a chance to open, reflect and slide into a better world as a result of this Read in Color initiative. As the initiative grows and gains traction in our communities, I hope many more children and young adults will participate in cultivating a more inclusive, representative catalog of the stories we share.

Photo at top (from left): Dr. Constance Robinson, principal, Early College Academy; student Kaya Law; and Little Free Library Steward Katie Kunz pose by their Read in Color book box. All photos by author.

About Katie Kunz

Katie Kunz is an English teacher at Brooklyn Center Community Schools Early College Academy--an alternative high school. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University and lives in South Minneapolis with her man, their two boys, and a white English Bulldog named Phyllis.