Meet the literacy influencer who's championing diverse books for kids

·8 min read
Charnaie Gordon of Here Wee Read shares advice on encouraging kids to read and introducing them to diverse stories. (Photo: Charnaie Gordon; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Charnaie Gordon of Here Wee Read shares advice on encouraging kids to sit down with a book. (Photo: Charnaie Gordon; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

Welcome to So Mini Ways, Yahoo Life's parenting series on the joys and challenges of child-rearing.

Charnaie Gordon considers herself "still very much a techie at heart"; indeed, she's got more than 15 years in the IT industry to back that up. But when the pandemic put things into perspective, the mom of two decided to step back and instead pursue her passion for books — specifically stories that celebrate diversity and inclusivity.

A year after making that leap, Gordon has transformed her side-project literacy blog into a full-fledged Here Wee Read community encompassing a podcast, curated reading lists for Amazon and Bookshop, and more than 360,000 Instagram followers — many of them parents looking to diversify their family's bookshelves. The digital creator has also turned to authoring books herself, in addition to founding her 50 States 50 Books nonprofit organization, which collects and donates diverse books to schools and groups nationwide.

Here, Gordon speaks out on supporting children's literacy, the importance of championing books that offer representation and tackle weighty topics, and how she gets her own kids — ages 7 and 9 — to crack open a spine.

How much time does your family spend reading books? Do you have designated reading times and routines, or is it more organic?

I aim to read aloud with my kids for a minimum of 30 minutes per day. So that time, coupled with their 30-minute independent reading time, and my own personal scheduled morning reading time (30 minutes), adds up to about 90 minutes of combined family reading time per day on average. Of course, there are days when we may read more or less time depending on our schedule.

Although we typically have certain periods of the day for designated reading times, I like our storytime sessions to be as organic as possible, so it feels enjoyable and not like a chore. Most mornings I read aloud a picture book with my kids during breakfast time. We call this “Breakfast Over Books.” At night we have another storytime session right before the kids go to bed. This usually consists of me reading aloud our family chapter book selection of the month while cuddled up in the “big bed,” a.k.a. me and my husband’s king-sized bed.

The kids also have a 30-minute independent reading period to do on their own. They get to choose when this gets done throughout the day. I also allow them to choose their own books to read for their independent reading sessions. Most days they remember, but sometimes they do not and that is OK, too.

Do you have any advice for parents who struggle to get their children interested in reading?

Whenever I am asked this question by parents, I am immediately filled with gratitude because I think about what a privilege it is to be able to read and have access to books, libraries or bookstores. This reminder always helps me put that into perspective for parents who struggle to get their children interested in reading. Reading and books are privileges that not everyone has access to.

I often wonder is it that kids are not interested in reading at all, or [have they not] yet found a book or topic that interests them enough to want to read? I think that is the first thing to understand. I am a firm believer that if a child (or grown-up) knows how to read, it is usually just a case of finding a topic or book series that will, in the words of Marie Kondo, “spark joy.” As humans, we are naturally wired to thrive on stories and storytelling so finding something that interests us is key.

Once you find books that can hold a child’s interest, you can then implement different tactics to enhance their reading experience. For younger kids, I like to incorporate different resources like Reading Comprehension Cubes, educational flashcards, Tell Me a Story Cards and Story Wands. Sometimes I will also have an extension craft activity to do after reading the book. These things allow us to have a deeper discussion about the book afterwards.

For older kids, perhaps you can enhance their reading experience by being genuinely interested in what they are reading. If they are willing to share, ask them questions about the book and find out what they liked or what they think could have been improved.

Again, my goal is to try and never make reading feel like something kids feel like they 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.”

Lastly, I think it is also important to remind yourself we are living in a time where books have to compete with screens and social media. It does not make you a “bad parent” if your kids are choosing screens over books. If that is your reality, give yourself grace and know you are not alone. Given a choice, I think most kids will choose a screen over a book any day. However, if you can get to a point where your kids are sometimes choosing books over screens, then you are doing OK.

Why is it so important for kids of all backgrounds to have access to more inclusive and diverse reads? Beyond representation, how can exposing kids to books (and toys) about other races, religions, gender identities and so on help them?

Children (and adults) need to be constantly reminded they can achieve anything regardless of their differences. Simply put, a lack of diversity can hinder a child’s ambitions and aspirations of the underrepresented 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 a similar hairstyle on a doll 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.

Do you have any advice for introducing books tackling more complex topics like privilege or activism? Is it best to wait until a child's at the age when meaningful conversations can be had, or is there something to be said for introducing these topics early on and kids will eventually catch up?

My advice: Like Nike said, “Just do it.” Research has shown us that as early as 6 months, a baby's brain can notice race-based differences. With that in mind, I think it is important to understand children are ready to learn about “tough” topics (in age-appropriate ways) a lot sooner than many adults may think.

If you can teach a child about sharing, using their manners and being kind to others you can teach them about more complex topics too, like privilege, race or activism. I believe it is a privilege to have the choice of when to introduce complex topics to children when some children and families do not have a choice. This is especially true when it comes to talking to kids about racism. Black and brown families do not have the luxury of delaying the introduction of this topic (or others) to their kids until they are older.

In most cases I find it is the grown-ups who have issues discussing complex issues and need to do their own internal work to overcome any implicit or internal biases they may be harboring from their childhood. If that is the case, I would advise the grown-ups to first work on themselves before trying to introduce more complex topics with children. If you do not genuinely believe in equality for all and treating everyone with kindness and respect regardless of how they look, how do you expect your children to believe it? You need to practice what you preach, otherwise kids will pick up on it. Remember, children typically do as we do, not as we say.

You've recently co-authored [with Frank Murphy] the book A Friend Like You. What can you tell us about it?

A Friend Like You is a story about friendship and what it means to be a “good friend” to others. The book can be used by parents, caregivers and educators as a teaching tool for social and emotional learning. Although the book is written for young audiences (ages 4 to 8), I think the story will resonate with adult readers as well. It 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.

What were your favorite books growing up as a child?

My favorite book to read as a child was Corduroy by Don Freeman. It is the first book from my childhood where I remember seeing myself represented and reflected to me on the pages of a book. I wanted to be just like the character Lisa in the book.

What books are your family loving now?

Our Skin: A First Conversation About Race by Megan Madison and Jessica Ralli; Bodies Are Cool by Tyler Feder; Rocket Says Clean Up! by Nathan Bryon.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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