A Central Ohio Mom's Mission to Diversify School Libraries

Peter Tonguette
Julia Hanna with some of the books that Harper's Corner Foundation Inc. provides to school libraries.

In early June, Upper Arlington resident Julia Hanna learned how fast social media can spring into action for a good cause.

Compelled to do something following the death of George Floyd and the nationwide protests against racial injustice and police brutality, Hanna turned to Facebook to achieve her goal of providing 1,000 diversity- and inclusion-focused books to area schools. In just five days, $6,000 and scores of books were donated.

The response inspired the formation of the nonprofit Harper’s Corner Foundation Inc., through which Hanna and co-founder Kat DePizzo have so far provided books to schools in Bexley, Upper Arlington and Worthington, based on a reading list developed with Upper Arlington’s Cover to Cover Books for Young Readers.

Harper’s Corner takes its name from Hanna’s 5-year-old biracial daughter, in the hope that she and other children from diverse backgrounds will feel represented at school.

Have you and Harper ever had to confront racism?

The answer is yes, if I were to be honest. She and I look very different. I’m fair skin, blonde hair. She’s got beautiful tight curly brown hair and dark skin. A lot of curiosity stems from the fact that we just look very different, so people in the grocery store [ask], “Oh, when did you adopt her?” And my child is right there with me and she can hear what they’re saying. That’s not necessarily racism. First, it’s being really awkward and rude in person, but it’s also not being aware that diversity can look different.

What is your advice to parents on handling experiences like that?

You can’t avoid it. You’ve got to address it and you’ve got to talk about what just happened, talk about how people aren’t aware of differences. I really try to make Harper feel confident and loved and educated. I think, even as a newly turned 5-year-old, she’s really smart. She understands, and when you’re rational and can talk about how people think and the questions they ask and why they might ask those questions, it starts a dialogue with Harper.

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How can a book make a difference in promoting diversity?

If you are in the minority, so to speak, it allows you to feel accepted and seen as a person and recognize that not everyone looks the same.

On the flip side, in communities that lack a lot of diversity … it allows them to see that there is a bigger world out there, that families might look different, that people look different. It starts to create a conversation for young minds.

I’ve had an experience with Harper [after] I took her out of day care and she started going to preschool. Literally, the first day of school she came home and said, “Mommy, there was a girl with hair like mine.” Now, I didn’t think about it at the time when she was in day care, but she clearly was seeing that nobody looked like her. When she identified herself in someone else, it made her feel more confident.

 It sounds like there are many diverse books for young readers, but they aren’t necessarily getting to school library shelves.

As we’ve been sharing our book list with the educators, I know it’s been an eye-opening experience for them that their books weren’t as diverse as they thought they were—that they were lacking, specifically in the LGBTQ community.

Buying books is a challenge for even the most affluent districts. Especially in elementary school, most of the books are hardcovers, which are obviously more expensive. Even with the amazing discount that Cover to Cover is giving us, the cost of books is over $10 a book.

With a book list that is updated twice a year, will you continue to keep replenishing schools with books?

We want to continue to partner with these schools. … We feel it’s important that diversity is represented in the entire library, but [that] the Harper’s Corner books that are donated are pulled together. We are going to donate a Harper’s Corner rug [and] shelf-toppers with our logo. Each book is stamped. We really want to make it an inviting place, where children feel welcome.

Do you and Harper have some favorite books that you’ve read recently?

I have hundreds of books at home that Harper and I have been reading. There are two, in the books that have been donated, that have really resonated with Harper. The first one is “I Am Enough,” by Grace Byers. It’s a beautiful book … about loving who you are, respecting others, being kind to one another and embracing differences. The other one is “Black Is a Rainbow Color,” by Angela Joy. … When people talk about the color black, what does that mean? What does that signify? It’s just a really beautiful book about putting that color in a different context.

A shorter version of this Q&A appears in the Fall 2020 issue of Columbus Parent.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated from the Fall print issue to reflect the correct list of schools to which Harper’s Corner Foundation Inc. has provided books as of early October.