As a kid, Erin Gentry loved nothing more than getting lost in the pages of a good book. She would sit still for hours and let her imagination wander.
“So much would be going on around me, but if I was reading a book, it was like none of that mattered. I was able to just escape. We are in a different place when we read. I love that,” Gentry said .
Even into adulthood, books have that same effect on her. She still loses track of time as she flips through a mystery novel, enjoying the suspense and excitement as she nears the end.
Now, as a mom to a 1-year-old son, she can not always read for hours as she loved to as a kid.
But what motherhood has done is give Gentry a new perspective on books, which has inspired her to start the As Told By Foundation. Her organization’s mission is to provide children with books that represent Black characters outside of harmful stereotypes.
‘Where is the joy?’
In the summer of 2020, Gentry was pregnant with her son, Kyrin. The country was simultaneously in the midst of a pandemic and a massive movement advocating for racial equality.
The killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests brought up a lot of worries for Gentry. It was a hard time to be a new mom, she said.
“I was thinking about what the world will be like. I mean, bringing a Black child into the world, I do not even want to think about that, honestly. But I know I did not want him to have the same struggles as me, “Gentry said.
She realized while she could not control what kind of world her son was born into, she could make sure he grew up to love himself and his culture.
Since books were so important in her life growing up, she wanted to make sure Kryin read books that inspired him to be confident by representing Black youth in a positive light. Something Gentry realized was missing from the many books she read as a kid.
Gentry said she did not often get a chance to read books written by Black authors or stories that featured Black characters when she was younger. The few times the books she had access to were centered on Black voices, they were always about struggle or pushing harmful stereotypes, she said.
“Honestly, I’m over that. Where is the joy?” Gentry said.
She wants Black children, including her son, to have the chance to read books showing Black characters experiencing joy, adventure, and the ordinary aspects of life that aren’t centered around overcoming adversity.
Those stories are important too, Gentry said, but that can not be our only story.
“As a young person, if you’re only seeing yourself represented in struggle, you’ll think that’s all you can achieve. Because that’s all that’s put in front of you,” Gentry said.
How stereotypes can be harmful
Onnie Rogers, a developmental psychologist and an assistant professor at Northwestern University, has studied how children are impacted by how they see themselves represented in the content they consume.
Rogers said as children get older, they’re developing a sense of identity that is significantly shaped by what they see and hear, including the media they consume. The problem for kids of color, Rogers said, is that when they are represented, it’s usually negative or centered around a narrow stereotype.
“We know that impacts how kids think about who they are and what is possible for them. This limits young people’s imagination of what they can become,” Rogers said.
She worked on a report, The Inclusion Imperative: Why Media Representation Matters for Kids ‘Ethnic-Racial Development, that examined the role of media representation in kids’ ethnic-racial development.
The findings showed that when children of color are exposed to stereotypical media representations, it negatively impacts their self-esteem, satisfaction with their appearance, confidence in their ability, feelings about their ethnic-racial group, and academic performance.
The study found when students of color saw positive representations of their ethnic-racial group, it led to positive impacts on their self-perceptions and views about their ethnic-racial group.
Rogers said that armed with this information, parents, and teachers can be more intentional about the content they put in front of children to make sure kids know they’re not limited to a stereotype.
In the summer of 2020, Gentry held her first book drive. She contacted friends, family and used social media to ask for donations of new books or money to purchase new books. The book drive ended with 1,000 books Gentry was able to donate.
Tymika Chambers, a third-grade teacher at Rockdale Academy, received books from Gentry’s foundation.
Chambers said it’s sometimes hard to get her students excited about reading. Since her class received the new books from the As Told by Foundation, she noticed that her students are more eager to read.
“One of my students ran up and grabbed this book because she was excited the girl on the cover had the same hairstyle as her,” Chambers said. “I’ve seen firsthand. It does make a difference to let them have books that they relate to. ”
Arin Gentry is working on launching another book drive to donate more books to area schools and families. She loves talking to kids about the importance of books and setting reading goals with students.
She hopes to expand her foundation’s work to eventually offer literacy programs, tutoring, book clubs, and story-time hours for small children.
“I think books are so important. Books can inspire. And if kids have books that represent them and let them know they can do anything, it’ll open up so many doors,” Gentry said.
For information about how you can contribute books or donate, visit the As Told By Foundation website.