|image from @nerdcampli Twitter feed|
One session I attended yesterday was called Tough Topics in the Classroom and was moderated by authors Tony Abbott, Barbara Dee, Sarah Darer Littman, Lynda Mullaly Hunt and Marissa Moss. Each of these authors have written books that include topics that often have been considered controversial and perhaps inappropriate for the middle grade audience. In the book, The Summer of Owen Todd, Tony writes about the sensitive topic of sexual abuse and Barbara Dee's book, Star-Crossed includes a character, Gemma, who has a crush on another girl. Lynda's book, One for the Murphys is about a girl in foster care and includes flashbacks that explain why she has come to live with this foster family. All 3 of these books are intended for the middle grade audience. Sarah's book, Backlash, is recommended for grades 7 and up and deals with the damaging effects of cyberbullying.
The session began with the authors sharing a bit about their books and why they think these topics need to be included in middle grade books. When they asked us how we share these types of books in our classrooms a flood of questions and comments began. I want to write about it here on my blog so I can process what I heard and how I felt about everything that was said. First, I want to make it clear this is my opinion and I can only tell you my perspective. If you attended this session you might have taken away something different. And that is okay. Both personally and professionally I believe these controversial topics need to be included in middle grade books. I am so happy that I can now find more than 1 book with an LGBT character or theme to add to my classroom library. I read most of the books I put in my classroom and feel they are age-appropriate. They deal with themes of fitting in and trying to find out who you are. Many include themes of bullying and my 5th graders love those books. They have a great sense of fairness and are often dealing with these issues themselves.
During the discussion some teachers shared that they often required a parent signature when a student chose certain books that had topics that might concern parents. One teacher said she gave slips with notes to parents about the book chosen. My understanding was she didn't always do this, just sometimes. I was left wondering how she decided who got a parent note and who didn't? I shared that I included these types of books in my regular book talks. I didn't treat them any different than other books. I think that my parents trust that I have selected books for my class library that are appropriate for all 5th graders. What I didn't share, because of time constraints, was the few experiences I have had when a parent questions a book their child is reading independently. (Parents have never questioned my read alouds or book club choices.) Years ago a parent contacted me to express her concerns about her daughter's reading choices. The daughter had become very interested in Greek mythology and the parent requested she not read these books because they went against their religion. Since this was a student's choice and not an assignment I respected the parents wishes, but asked her to explain this to her daughter, as I do not restrict children's reading choices. If this had been a whole class unit on Greek mythology my response would have been very different. When I taught 3rd grade a parent contacted me about the Dork Diary books her daughter had begun reading and was concerned that the books modeled poor behavior and shallow morals. Fortunately, I was able to have a great discussion with this parent about the value of book choice and I was certain that her daughter would get bored with these books soon and move on, especially after conferring and book talks designed for her daughter. I encouraged her to discuss the books with her daughter and bring up her concerns because kids actually do listen and want to know what we think. Eventually, this reader moved on to different books.
When, during the session, a K-6 librarian shared that she was okay with including Lynda's book in her collection, but was uncomfortable with Barbara's book I decided to respond. It seemed to me that most of the comments from teachers and librarians related to fear of parent reactions so I stated that we cannot let a few parents decide what we put on our library shelves. I said that we need to explore our own bias. It's okay to be uncomfortable but we have to think about and discuss why we are so uncomfortable with books that explore LGBT themes. These books aren't about sex, they are about self-acceptance, overcoming adversity and finding out who you are - important themes in children's literature. When we don't include books that make us uncomfortable I think it's essentially banning a book, and as the gatekeepers of what children get to read we have a responsibility to make sure diverse titles that children need are available.
Now here's the thing that bothered me after the session and made me write this post. I felt bad. The K-6 librarian had shared something about herself. She shared her discomfort and worry. That took courage. I had hoped my comments would lead to conversation about how to prepare and talk to parents or other adults that want to ban books. Maybe we would even talk about why we are uncomfortable with these "hot" topics. But I knew by her body language she was upset and felt attacked. I can't blame her. That was not my goal, but it happened.
Later in the day someone came up to me to thank me for my comments during the session. I shared with him that I felt I had come off rude to this poor librarian. We discussed the fact that the conversations were just getting going as the session came to an end. We agreed that this was an important topic and much more conversation was needed.
To me, it's clear why we need these types of books on the shelves. It's also clear that we have to have more discussion about these topics that make us comfortable. And most of all, how can we help teachers and librarians feel empowered and safe so they will put these books on the shelf?