When Michelle Martin thinks back on her teaching career, she identifies its starting point as second grade—not when her students were second graders, but when she was. Earlier this year, sitting in her office full of children’s books at the University of Washington, Martin told me that her first pupil was a classmate, a little girl whose family had moved into Martin’s neighborhood in Columbia, South Carolina, and who “had had a turbulent childhood.” Upon noting that her classmate was having trouble reading, Martin simply told their teacher not to worry—she’d take care of it. Martin remembers few specifics of the exact teaching strategy she used, but says her teacher later remarked to Martin’s mother, “She taught that child to read!”
Decades later, as a professor who specializes in children’s library services at the Information School at the University of Washington, Martin is still turning children into readers, and her mission has expanded to educating teachers and librarians about how to make students of all backgrounds eager to explore books.
Martin’s day job is teaching graduate students, most of them future librarians, about children’s and young-adult literature. (Her professorship is named for the librarian turned beloved children’s-book author Beverly Cleary.) Martin’s philosophy is that all children can become lovers of books, but that it’s an educator’s job to help them find the stories in which they can see or imagine themselves. In 2017, a study published by the American Library Association indicated that in the United States, some 87 percent of librarians were white. The pool of American teachers, meanwhile, is about 80 percent white, and children’s literature as a genre is also overwhelmingly written by, and about, white people. Yet only half of American children are white—and Martin has taken note over the years of the ways in which the whiteness of school libraries and classroom book collections can alienate students of color, resulting in missed opportunities to foster a love of reading.