True story: Alberta teen pens grant application to bring diversity to her school library

Once upon a time, there was a girl named Sofia who loved books but was bothered by how the book collection in her school library was very … well … white.

So the girl decided she’d try to write a new twist to the tale by penning something prosaic yet powerful — an application for a government grant, to be exact.

Two thousand dollars later, 13-year-old Sofia Rathjen of Sherwood Park, Alta., is curating a collection of books by, and about, Black, Indigenous and people of colour.

The new books are building diversity on the bookshelves of the Sherwood Heights junior high library and more tolerance and understanding among its students.

“Students of colour — and all people of colour —  can see their stories represented authentically and unapologetically and written by authors who understand those experiences,” the Latino-Canadian teen told CBC Radio’s Edmonton AM.

“And non-people of colour can understand things that we go through. That way, it’s not always our job to explain everything and why something is hurtful or racist.” 

‘I just thought about how I could change that’

In total, the school will get 134 books —  science fiction, poetry, history, graphic novels, mythology and more — featuring authors from dozens of cultural backgrounds.

Rathjen’s application for Strathcona County’s Community Change grant grew out of another piece of writing — a “passion project” essay about why representation matters in school libraries that she had done the year before.

“The library was great, [but] I noticed that it lacked representation of people of colour and I saw the way that it affected outside of the library and outside of books,” Rathjen said.

“Personally, I experienced a lot of micro-aggressions, and I know people who have experienced blatant racism from people at our school. And so I just thought about how I could change that.”

“I know people who had experienced blatant racism from people at our school. And so I just thought about how I could change that,” says Alberta student who won grant to add BIPOC books to her school library. 1:41

The Grade 8 student came up with the idea to apply for the grant, then went to the teacher of her leadership class, Robin Koning, for help. 

Koning said he is “pleased as punch,” not just at the grant being approved but at what it means for the school.

“We really want to increase our Black/Indigenous/people of colour collection,” he said. “Like Sofia said, we want people to realize that people from other cultures experience all kinds of discrimination, whether it’s words or actions or just weird things that people say and do.”

The school’s new “technicolour bookshelf,” as Rathjen dubs it, is a powerful way to share that message. And Rathjen, said Koning, is a powerful ambassador.

“For us to increase the collection of books that … students would love to read, that’s what we’re about,” he said. “The excitement from Sofia will make, hopefully, other students her age excited about reading.” 

The first 39 books arrived at Rathjen’s home during the at-home schooling period so, of course, she took the opportunity to read them.

Books provide perspective

She reviews books, too, on her Instagram account @the_technicolour_bookshelf, and happily rattled off suggestions to a CBC Radio producer who asked about titles.

“OK, so Clap When You Land is by Elizabeth Acevedo. This is about two sisters who don’t know that the other exists until their dad dies in a plane crash. And it’s about grief and loss and also sisterhood. And it’s really beautiful,” she said.

“And this, Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, is based off of African and African-American mythology. And it’s about a boy who punches a hole in the sky into a world of folklore that he thought were only stories.”

Rathjen said she worked hard to find books that will appeal to people of any ethnicity, whether or not they love books as much as her. 

Books, she said, are the way to see the perspectives of others. 

“There’s a metaphor [about] windows and mirrors. So books are either a window into someone else’s perspective and experiences, or a mirror of your own. 

“And so I think that’s why I love reading so much. Because you get to read about so many different stories and experiences and put yourself in the shoes of other people.”

The end.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.


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