University dean introduces students to other cultures and worlds through books

POCATELLO – As a child, Tracy Collum saw herself in the protagonists she read about – like Ramona in Beverly Cleary’s classic children’s books. 

As an adult, she realized she was lucky to have that experience. A lack of diverse books means some young readers don’t see book characters who look like them or have similar backgrounds. 

So Collum, the associate dean for Idaho State University’s Graduate School, decided to do something about it. 

In 2020, she got the idea to host a book drive. People from the community and even around the country could participate by purchasing diverse, inclusive books to be donated to Pocatello’s K-4 students. The initiative was a hit and is now in its third year. To date, donors have gifted more than 1,800 books to Pocatello area students at 18 schools, including traditional, charter, and private schools. 

“We want to expose students to other cultures and worlds they might not be exposed to on a daily basis,” Collum said. “It’s just really important for students to be able to find a love of reading.”

This week, Collum and other Idaho State staff members delivered this year’s bounty – 764 new books headed to the library shelves. 

Irena Naumu, center, receives books for the Ellis Elementary library from Idaho State’s Graduate School book drive. Tracy Collum is on the right.

The media clerks were thrilled – perhaps especially Irena Naumu. 

“I never saw me in books growing up,” she said. 

Naumu said she is white and Polynesian, but never saw Polynesian characters. So now, as the media clerk for Ellis Elementary, she’s made sure to change that. The library now has a copy of a book called “Punky Aloha” by Shar Tuiasoa, about a “shy little Polynesian girl on a quest for butter for her Grandmother’s famous banana bread.”

It’s one of a number of diverse books she features on a wall in the library so all students see themselves somewhere. 

The book wall that Irena Naumu made for the Ellis Elementary library in Pocatello.

And Wednesday, Naumu received a stack of about 40 more inclusive books to add to library shelves. She was thrilled to see one of the books was in Spanish, and already had in mind some Spanish-speaking students who would be interested in it. 

At Tyhee Elementary, some fourth and fifth graders were in the library checking out books when ISU made its delivery. The students’ eyes opened wide and their jaws dropped when they saw the stacks of books wrapped in ribbons. 

“Having opportunities to read and being able to choose books that are fun, and that interest and excite them is important,” AJ Watson, the director of elementary education for the Pocatello-Chubbuck School District, said. “We want everyone to feel welcome, empowered, and successful in school. We want them to see themselves in books and have that overall feeling of being included.”

AJ Watson, Tracy Collum, principal Jodi Prestwich, media clerk Terri Ransbottom, and Angie Calloway participate in a book delivery at Tyhee Elementary.

Watson said the district’s media center specialists always review and approve titles before they’re added to libraries, and these books will go through that same process. 

The books were donated by more than 60 individuals and organizations, including Idaho State’s English Department, College of Business, Idaho Central Credit Union, United Way of Southeast Idaho, and the Pocatello chapter of the National Association for Advancement of Colored People.

Media Clerk Mega Huff and Principal Kirk Thomson receive books at Chubbuck Elementary.
Carly Flandro

Carly Flandro

Carly Flandro reports from her hometown of Pocatello. Prior to joining EdNews, she taught English at Century High and was a reporter for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. She has won state and regional journalism awards, and her work has appeared in newspapers throughout the West. Flandro has a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and Spanish from the University of Montana, and a master’s degree in English from Idaho State University. You can email her at [email protected] or call or text her at (208) 317-4287.

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