Nardos Habtemicael, first grade teacher at Challenger Elementary School, received a grant to create a diversity bookshelf at the library. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Nardos Habtemicael, first grade teacher at Challenger Elementary School, received a grant to create a diversity bookshelf at the library. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Everett teacher makes room for diverse books and students

Challenger teacher Nardos Habtemicael created special section of multicultural books in the library.

EVERETT — Everybody’s got a story.

And this first-grade teacher wants stories to reflect her student body.

Nardos Habtemicael received a grant to create a diversity bookshelf in the library at Challenger Elementary School.

“It helps those who are not the majority get their story out,” she said. “Sometimes I can’t put it into a lesson. I can say, ‘Hey, look at this book.’ ”

The four-tier shelf is near the library entrance.

A glossy cover shows a girl in a hijab, a traditional head covering worn by some Muslim women. The story of Romani guitarist Django Reinhardt illustrates his trials and triumphs as a boy. “Hidden Figures,” the title of a movie about the black women who helped win the space race, is in children’s book format.

“These are just the beginning,” said Habtemicael, 33, a Challenger teacher for three years. “Education tends to be the first place kids see differences around them. When you have the books, you learn about different cultures and genders and disabilities.”

Challenger is the most diverse elementary school in the Mukilteo School District. There are 43 languages spoken in students’ homes.

The books are standard library materials that students can check out to take home.

The idea for the diversity bookshelf stems from a class Habtemicael took last year at UW Bothell for her master’s degree. She worked with the Challenger librarian to inventory the selection of multicultural books at the school.

“My idea was to see where we lacked,” Habtemicael said. “I made a proposal of books and things I’d like to buy for my school.”

Her UW Bothell professor, Cherry McGee Banks, was impressed.

“It is so important for teachers when they see something that is missing in the curriculum to take the initiative to move forward to do something about it, and that is what Nardos did,” Banks said. “It all started with an idea, and then she followed up on it.”

So, too, did the professor. Banks secured a grant from her family’s foundation for $400 to fund the project.

Habtemicael used the money to purchase 22 books to fill in gaps in the library’s collection.

She and the librarian took it a step further: combining all the diversity themed books in a central location.

“I wanted it be accessible to kids,” Habtemicael said. “So the kids knew it was there and would be able to find the books. It’s a section for them to find those answers.”

The books are more than mirrors for students.

“It’s not just for people of color to see themselves in these books,” she said. “I wanted them to learn about different students.”

It goes deeper than skin color.

“Multicultural isn’t just race,” she said. “A lot of people think it has to be just cultural, where they are from or a story about an African-American, but they tend to forget the special needs and gender.”

Book topics from the grant project include autism, female empowerment and LGBTQ pride.

Habtemicael researched the books to ensure the content was authentic. Even children’s books can’t be judged by their covers.

The Children’s Book Council has a diverse reading list. The nonprofit We Need Diverse Books is among organizations pressing for more books featuring characters for all children.

In 2015, Marley Dias, then 11, gained attention for being the girl who got sick of reading about white boys and their dogs and did something about it with #1000BlackGirlBooks.

The publishing industry is stepping up to offer books to help bridge the diversity gap by expanding selection.

Habtemicael said the book “I’m New Here,” about immigrants and with the girl in the hijab on the cover, sparked discussion when she read it to her class last year. A girl in her class also wore a hijab.

“The kids were like, ‘Why is that?’ So that started the conversation,” she said. A boy in the class said his mom and sister wore a hijab.

“If there are books, maybe they won’t be too nervous to ask or too shy and never ask and fill their heads with assumptions,” she said.

Habtemicael, whose parents are from Eritrea in northeast Africa, speaks from experience of going to a mostly white school in Seattle.

“I spent a lot of years talking about my hair, why my skin is this way. Growing up a lot of friends would ask me questions,” she said.

“I was down to tell my story. I can tell you mine, but mine might not match the others. Each story is going to be different. That’s what we want to share with the kids.”

Meetings are underway to expand diversity bookshelves to other schools in the district.

Andrea Brown:; 425-339-3443. Twitter @reporterbrown.

Talk to us

More in Local News

Harry Lee Jones Jr.
Man gets 31½ years for shooting Everett motel guest 12 times

Harry Lee Jones Jr., 27, beat and then shot a Farwest Motel guest in 2018 while two accomplices looted his room.

Pallet communities are groups of tiny homes for unhoused people. Here, a worker installs weatherstripping on a pallet shelter at Pallet in Everett in January 2020. (Kevin Clark / Herald file)
Tiny home community is proposed at a Marysville church

The Pallet shelter community would provide transitional housing to eight people. Neighbors have questions.

With credit scores out, will insurers cut or hike your rate?

Lack of affordable housing squeezed buyers and drove up home prices across Snohomish County.

Photo courtesy Laura Thompson 

Madison Thompson and her dog Stella.
Whidbey teen, golden retriever make top 8 in NY kennel show

Madison Thompson was one of the youngest competitors in her division of 80 kids.

Chris Stack and Samantha Soule film a scene of their movie, "Midday Black, Midnight Blue," on the Coupeville wharf June 14. (Photo by Karina Andrew/Whidbey News-Times)
Indie film crew: Whidbey residents are ‘generous and welcoming’

The movie makers are shooting scenes for a full-length feature at various sites around the island.

Everett's Patrick Hall was among people who put up signs in March to save the Longfellow School building.  He is now part of an advisory task force looking at options for the building, which the Everett School District had planned to tear down.  (Dan Bates / The Herald)
National register listing could be next for old Longfellow

But the designation wouldn’t stop the Everett School District from tearing down the former school.

Abigail Cruz was awarded the American Association of University Women Edmonds Sno-King branch's $2,000 scholarship for Edmonds College. (AAUW Edmonds Sno-King)
Edmonds College student wins $2,000 AAUW scholarship

AAUW scholarship for Edmonds College student The Edmonds SnoKing Branch of the… Continue reading

Junelle Lewis becomes emotional while performing a dance with her children during the Justice to Jubilee Juneteenth Celebration at Skykomish River Park on Saturday, June 19, 2021 in Monroe, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Justice to Jubilee: ‘No one is free till everyone is free’

People gathered Saturday in a Monroe park to celebrate Juneteenth, a new federal holiday that commemorates the end of slavery.

Galina Volchkova, the Volunteers of America Housing Director, discusses the volume of applications for rental assistance her office received Friday. (Katie Hayes / The Herald) 20210618
7,000 tenants, waiting for help, fear eviction after June 30

Rental assistance money won’t reach many landlords before the coronavirus eviction moratorium expires.

Most Read