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: abrown@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3443. Twitter @reporterbrown.

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