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New Culturally Responsive ‘Our Stories Decodables’ Collection + Author Q&A: Yvette Manns

pgodbole  //  May 8, 2024

New Culturally Responsive ‘Our Stories Decodables’ Collection + Author Q&A: Yvette Manns

Created through a unique collaboration with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and the University of Oregon, students and alumni collaborated with Scholastic to create a line of 24 culturally affirming decodable books. Our Stories Decodables is designed to represent diverse children and families authentically, respectfully, and lovingly.

The collection will provide students with targeted practice and an application of sounds and spellings they have been taught, limiting word choice so that they are able to efficiently recognize and read words without guessing – which eventually leads to an increase in confidence and feeling of success surrounding reading.

Research from the Scholastic Kids and Family Reading Report™ found that nearly half of children who are Black or Hispanic have a difficult time finding books with characters who are like them, and over half of Black and Hispanic children age nine or older wish there were more books with diversity available. Through this program, Scholastic and the new authors will provide students of color with decodable stories on a variety of topics, genres, and formats that involve relatable and inspiring characters that will motivate and engage readers of all ages.

To celebrate this collaboration, we are releasing a series of Q&As with the authors involved to share the magic behind these fantastic decodable stories. To kick our series off, we spoke with children’s book author, literacy educator, and HBCU Clark Atlanta University grad Yvette Manns.

A New York City native, Yvette currently lives in Atlanta. Her story, Sneakerball, revolves around an inventive boy named DJ who employs creative tactics to increase access to resources so other children can get a fresh pair of kicks like his. Keep reading to learn more about Yvette and her experience with Our Stories Decodables:

Q. Why is representation in literacy important to you?

A. I was fortunate to grow up in a very diverse background. My neighborhood in Queens had so many beautiful ethnicities and races and identities that I got to learn about. However, in full transparency, I don't think I saw the representation that I needed. I remember in high school, there were a lot of international fairs and those types of things, but there weren't many opportunities to learn about myself beyond February (Black History Month). 

I found myself on a quest to go to a Historically Black college because I needed that knowledge of self. Coming to Atlanta and meeting so many other Black people who were the same and different was beautiful. Everyone spoke the way we spoke in New York, and I thought that everyone looked the way we looked. But I found so much diversity amongst Black people. I think that in my own educational career, it was initially lacking. 

I'm grateful for two parents who were very involved and hands-on and helped me develop that knowledge of self. I'm glad that I joined a HBCU because I learned about myself, I learned about others, and it was a very transformational time.

Q. What was your first reaction to the news you’d been selected to write a decodable book for students of color?

A. Oh man, it was like a dream come true. When I saw it on Twitter, I stopped everything and ran and got my computer. I was like the little meme with the cat that was typing super fast. Finally, someone understands that there is this intersectionality that exists between literacy and representation that is necessary for students to resonate with books. 

I've worked in literacy for a very long time, especially with the Science of Reading. Decodables have come a very long way, and I am honored to be a part of this project. 

This is a great initiative and I hope it continues because the mentorship, the support, everything throughout was just phenomenal.

Q. How do you hope your stories will impact young readers who may not have seen themselves represented in books before?

A. I hope that children will look at my book and become intrigued and want to know more and just be captured by all of the elements. I hope that when a child picks up my book, it is just a light bulb, a spark goes off. I hope that they tell someone, and show someone, ‘hey, look what I learned, look what I read’, have a discussion with their families, friends, read to someone else, with someone else. 

Literacy is like a thread that can tie and bind people together and help to build connections. Oftentimes, the art of storytelling is its own art, but imagine the power that a child will have once they pick up a book that resonates with them. Not only do they read it, but they're able to apply the strategies to decode the words, and then they're also able to talk about it and have a conversation and tell someone else about what they liked, what they didn't like, what they would have changed, and get the opportunity to flex those critical thinking skills. 

I want kids to really, really dig into the stories, and I want them to see themselves and know that their image matters, that who they are as a person matters, and that their voice matters. We live in a society now where we can tell our stories – we haven't always had that privilege to have an audience, or to have the power to tell a narrative from our lived experiences. 

I just want a child to pick up my story and say, you know what, I can do this, or I can be like this person, and I can embody these traits.

Q. Why is it crucial for children's books in the classroom to reflect a broader perspective?

A. We know what the statistics say, right? There are more books about inanimate objects and animals than there are about Black children. And then there are more books about Asian American Pacific Islanders than there are about Latinx children. We know that there is a lot of room in the market to really amplify Black voices and Black experiences.

Let's talk about the accessibility of these texts within the classroom. Oftentimes as educators we do themed months. January may be the snowman, New Year’s, and winter clothing books, and then February is books about love and Black people. So these books cycle in and out of the classroom. They may be read aloud. They may be a mentor text for writing. But when you have diverse texts in classroom libraries year-round accessible to students where they can reach it, touch it, pick it up and engage with it, it becomes more real. It's not just something that passes through the classroom environment.

Having easily accessible diverse children’s books will build understanding and compassion. It will help to dispel some of the narratives that kids may see in the media or some of the antiquated thoughts that they may hear from family members or from other outside sources. Children have the ability to formulate their own understanding of other groups by engaging with these books on their own time with their own opinion, because kids are smart. 

Q. What has been the most rewarding aspect of being involved with Our Stories Decodables?

A. Since 2019, I've been writing children's books. I recently entered a contest, and I thought it was some of my best work, but it was not received well at all. I was told that it felt like an outsider writing about somebody else's experience. My immediate reaction was ‘but wait…the story is about a Black woman. I am a Black woman. I wrote this.’ I was told that the language was not authentic enough, so I pushed back. I said, “This is authentic because this is my language. This is how I speak. This is how I show up.”

Overall, I was a little discouraged. I was looking forward to that mentorship and that contest. But then, I got the call back from Scholastic and I said, “You know what? Let me give it one more try.”

Through this program it felt that who I am was celebrated and welcomed. I was able to show up as I am, as we talked about all the differences that there are within our culture, within our race and ethnicity.

I feel like this was the first experience that really truly wanted to know about me and how I could lay my experiences on the page for other children to benefit from. This experience was really transformative because it gave me the confidence to write again. Imagine the quality of work that comes out when children read a book that has an image that's reflected back to them by an author who's been empowered to be true. How powerful is that?

Our Stories Decodables will be available to teachers this September with pre-orders now open. To learn more about Our Stories Decodables click here, and be sure to follow @ScholasticEdu on X!