By Britten Follett – Senior Vice President of Marketing and Classroom Initiatives, Follett School Solutions
As a child, I read every single Ramona Quimby, Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley High book ever written. Yes, I was a child of the 80s. When I think back on the extensive list of books on my home library shelf, I can’t recall a single book written by an author who didn’t look like my mom or dad. As a nine-year-old white female in the Midwest, I day-dreamed about the life Jessica and Elizabeth had in “Sweet Valley, California.” My home book shelf did a great job of expanding my horizons as far as geographic diversity, but I don’t recall racial, religious, gender or other types of diversity in the characters and stories I loved.
The day I arrived on a college campus, I was introduced to new friends from all walks of life and learned how varied my peers’ life experiences could be. When I graduated college and became a television journalist, my world view continued to expand and change as I met many subjects of television news stories – most of whom don’t generally come from middle-class America.
I knocked on the doors of section-eight housing projects to interview mothers whose sons were killed in gang cross-fire. I met prostitutes on a street corner to talk about a police officer who crossed a line in an undercover investigation. I sat on a couch in a trailer as a worried and frustrated grandmother explained her fight for custody of her grand-baby, who she suspected of being abused by her drug-addicted stepfather. These experiences forever changed the way I think, feel, and interact with my fellow women and men.
While very few people will ever walk in my shoes as a journalist, books can—and should—provide diverse perspectives, in what the characters look like, believe in, and the experiences that shape their lives. As my life and career has been defined by a family and personal dedication to education, I’m consistently reminded of the need for learners to see themselves in the books they read, and to use books to help them develop an understanding of what other cultures and lives might be like.
One of the perks of working for a company that sells lots of books is that we have access to advanced copies before they are published. Recently I got my hands on On the Come Up, the much-anticipated second novel by the author of The Hate You Give. I also read the preliminary draft of a yet-to-be published book on the slave trade by Kwame Alexander. Books like these give readers a glimpse into the day-to-day life of characters who will never share the same experiences as the characters I read about and imagined in “Sweet Valley, California.” In fact, in many cases, there’s nothing sweet. They live in fear of gangs. Some deal drugs to keep the lights on. They witness friends get killed. While these books are fiction, they are not very far from the television news reports I delivered each night. But they are told through the lens of a protagonist who overcomes adversity. These are heroes and heroines with whom every reader can connect. Characters who could be a reader’s friend… if we’re open to it.
At Follett, we have partnered with Newbery Award-Winning author Kwame Alexander to raise the visibility of these books and authors. Our #allbooksforallkids campaign introduces students, teachers and librarians to a collection of books they might be hesitant to pick up or maybe afraid to teach because the character on the cover doesn’t look like them and the story isn’t typically mainstream.
Well, that prostitute didn’t look like me. But her bravery to tell her story held those in power accountable, and she was a heroine that day. And that’s something that can change the world. I believe #allbooksforallkids is a way of stepping out of the echo chamber of our own thoughts and beliefs…and seeing the horizon through a slightly different lens.
Britten is a journalist. A marketer. A storyteller. A board member. A philanthropist. An advocate for libraries and education. Britten spent 10 years as an Emmy and Edward R. Murrow award-winning television journalist. In 2010, she made a tough decision to give up a career she loved and embark on a new career as a 5th generation family member working for Follett Corporation. At Follett, she started as the marketing manager for the International team and has held various roles in marketing and communications throughout the organization. Today she is the senior vice president of marketing and classroom initiatives for Follett’s K12 education business.