When I started my fourteenth year of teaching last fall, I made sure to implement the strategies outlined in Penny Kittle’s book, Book Love, with fidelity. My students had free choice of books, time to read each day, as well as book talks and book conferences. They wrote about the books they read. They talked to each other about the books they read. I was determined to turn them into lifelong readers, determined to make them fall in love (or back in love) with reading. I was consumed with making sure I did everything “right.” My constant evaluation of myself – my teaching practices, my philosophies, my pedagogy – and how I affected my students was both exhilarating and exhausting. I was so worried about the impact that I would have on them, that it wasn’t until there were only a few days of school left that I realized the impact that they had on me.
My students completed an End-Of-Year reading evaluation, one I adapted from those found in Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer, and Pernille Ripp’s Passionate Readers. I added in a few of my own questions, and presented it to students. The purpose was to evaluate my teaching, the classroom culture, and students’ perceptions of their own personal reading growth. I asked for openness and honesty, and they more than delivered. As part of the evaluation, I asked them to rank the importance of certain aspects of the reading culture in our classroom, and they overwhelmingly ranked independent reading time in class as most important to them. Ranked #2 was daily book talks, and #3 was having a classroom library. We should listen to our students – they know what they need.
In addition to praise, I received critical feedback. Some students liked the freedom to choose projects and groups, and they enjoyed all the student-talk that happened each day. Other students wrote that they would have preferred a more structured classroom in which the projects and groups are assigned rather than chosen, and they wanted a quieter classroom with less talk so they could concentrate more. Students recommended that I have more books with LGBT characters, more romance books, and more mystery books. (Which, as a winner of the 2018 Book Love Foundation grant, I will be able to provide!) Some students wanted my discipline to be harsher toward students who weren’t following expectations, while others felt that I was pretty strict. I had one student write that he thought we should read more classics, and that I should talk less about current events and books that address current social justice issues because it made him uncomfortable – which tells me he probably needed to hear those conversations more than almost any other student. I am carefully considering the feedback from all students and will make some changes to my teaching practices next year. (Although I have no plans to stop talking about current events and books that deal with current social justice issues!)
Some of their responses made me laugh out loud, and some made me cry. Here are several of my favorites:
“Though I think the current selection is fine, I believe that maybe more LGBT books in order to really show that being straight isn’t default.”
“What I like best about the way Mrs. Visness teaches is her connection with the students. She doesn’t sound nice just because that’s how she should be as a teacher, but it feels like she genuinely cares about the students and their input.”
“It’s interesting and I’m glad I saw there is something in reading other than trying to get to the end.”
“I passed the reading STAAR because of reading all these books.”
“Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda because I can relate to hiding a big secret.”
“Her book talks, I can’t wait to read the books I wrote down over the summer.”
“None, I never had a good ELA teacher for all through 6th-7th grade. I’ve actually learned something and now I feel confident to go to high school.”
“My job. And Fortnite.”
“The book talks you had really helped me get more interested and intrigued me into reading more books and actually completing them.”
“Tyler Johnson was Here. This was my favorite book because it was about police brutality and that subject does interest me a lot. It’s also because it made me feel like I was actually a part of it.”
“I plan to read more Jason Reynolds books, and books about police brutality.”
“You helped me as a reader by expanding/opening up my selection of books.”
“You showed me books that had characters that weren’t White, straight, and perfect.”
“She didn’t teach to the STAAR test.”
“I like that she already loves reading so she doesn’t have to pretend.”
“You helped me by every day you would give books talks about books. I liked it because you exposed me to books I wouldn’t have known existed.”
“You gave amazing book recommendations, when I read a book you recommended I was never disappointed.”
“I definitely feel that I can understand more on picking up foreshadowing and context clues earlier than before.”
“I am a better reader because now I know what type of books I enjoy and I actually want to finish them.”
“Probably The Hate U Give because it really opened my eyes to what other people face that I didn’t know about.”
“You let us read for 10 minutes in the class.”
“Let us read for 20 minutes.”
“To read every day for 30 minutes and then play Fortnite.”
“I was not a very good reader at the beginning of the year. I struggled with understanding big words. Also when I would read books it would go through one ear and out the other.”
“I am not the best, but I am a lot better now. When I read now, I can really understand what the book is about.” (Please note #2 and #3! Amazing!)
The purpose of the evaluation was to find out if students benefited from the reading culture and strategies in our classroom. I wanted them to fall in love with reading and books, but how do you measure love? I don’t know how to measure a love of books and reading, but this year, watching my students find their reading lives and thrive while finding themselves in the pages of books has been the most fulfilling experience of my teaching career. And while they spent the school year falling in love with reading, I spent the school year falling in love with them.
A “launch” I commonly used with my classes as they left each day is this –
Be kind, speak up, do right, and keep reading!
but I may be changing it to this bit of perfection –
“Just read, boo.”
I’ve been a book collector for many years. My collecting began because I have two children of my own and I wanted them to be surrounded by books in our home since birth. My obsession with books for kids of all ages enabled me to begin this school year, in my move from special education inclusion teacher to 8th grade ELA teacher, with a large classroom library. My collection includes picture books, fables, fairy tales in all their forms, poetry, Middle Grade books, YA books, graphic novels, and nonfiction books. I enjoy talking with my students and other educators about the books that are on my shelves; however, I’m spending some time over winter break evaluating not which books are on my shelves, but by asking the question – Which stories are missing?
Diverse stories were important to me, at first, because I wanted my own children to learn…
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It is a poor heart that never rejoices. – Charles Dickens
After thirteen years as a special education inclusion teacher, I have changed positions at my school and am now a general education/Pre-AP 8th grade English Language Arts teacher. This is a move I’ve been contemplating for several years, and this year the opportunity happily presented itself. As an advocate for free choice reading, my collection of middle-grade and YA books quickly found a home on my classroom library shelves. Last spring, I attended Penny Kittle’s professional development workshop, Book Love; I’ve been implementing the strategies and techniques I learned from the training, as well as from reading her book, into my classroom. I had lots of expectations about how this year would go – I was nervous to be starting this new adventure in my own classroom, but also confident in my abilities to spread book love to my students and help them build their own reading lives. I could not wait to get started!
But. This is the time of year when negativity abounds among teachers and students – summer was forever ago, and the holiday breaks just can’t get here fast enough. Teachers are talking, a lot, about all the things that are wrong with “kids these days.” It gets hard to listen to. While I do raise my voice against decisions adults make that are not in the best interest of kids, there are many things I can’t change – I can’t change that a child has a past filled with poverty, abuse, or neglect. I can’t take away learning disabilities, neurological disorders, or mental health issues. I can’t change what happened in all the other classrooms my kids sat in before they came to me. And yet, our students are not static characters in a novel, incapable of change. They are kids; they are not yet who they are going to be. I may not have control over many things that directly affect my students, but what I do have control over is my own attitude and what happens in my own classroom. Recently, Donalyn Miller wrote a post for the Nerdy Book Club blog where she stated, “What we do is who we are.” Positive rituals benefit students, and a routine we have at my school is something called “good things” – students share with the class something they are looking forward to, something fun they did, or other good news (a component of Capturing Kids’ Hearts). So, with Donalyn’s words gently nudging my actions as a teacher (I keep a sticky note with those words on the wall next to my desk), I’m going to share the good things that have happened in my classroom so far this year.
- On the first day of school, as I explained the process for checking books out of my classroom library, one of my Pre-AP students, a black girl, saw The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas on my shelf. She was excited to see that title, and asked for more books about black characters. I showed her some similar books on my shelves, and handed them to her one by one. Her arms full, she said, “I can’t believe you have all these books about black people! I can really check them out? Like, for real?” I responded that yes, she really can check them out, and she said, “Man, this is the best class ever!”
- After posting the story above on my Instagram account (and sharing it in a previous blog post), a friend from junior high/high school whom I have not seen in more than twenty years, but keep in contact with through social media, messaged me to ask if she could donate books to my classroom library. I gladly provided her with a couple of titles, and she told me that I would soon receive a package in the mail. Expecting two or three books (and feeling quite happy about that), I was completely overwhelmed with emotion when, instead, I received ten brand new books, plus a $100 Amazon gift card, in the mail from my old friend. I was so touched by her generosity that I cried (and freaked out my ten-year-old)! I quickly ordered books for my classroom and shared the story with my students, along with a slew of new books.
- The librarians and teachers that are in my book club not only offer stellar advice and innovative instructional ideas to me without hesitation, they also all donated several current YA titles they personally owned to my classroom library – my friends are amazing! And they read great books!
- Another student, a boy in one of my regular ELA classes, spent the first several weeks reading the same book – a fictional story about a Texas football player. He didn’t seem that into it, and his apathy toward reading was apparent. My students read in class for ten minutes or so every single day. During reading time, he sighed, fell asleep, slumped in his chair, tried to lie on the floor, and generally did everything he could to get out of reading. He did finally finish that book, reading only one book in the first nine week grading period. I expect students to have a book to read every day in class, so he grudgingly checked out another book, Gym Candy by Carl Deuker. Every day for the last couple of weeks, when the ten minutes are up and I tell the class to find a stopping place in their reading, he groans loudly and says, “Noooo! Not yet!” Now, during independent reading time, he sits up in his chair and hunches over his book, gobbling up the words on the page while using his bookmark as a line guide. I often whisper, “Okay. Two more minutes,” to him as I take attendance. I mean, how could I not?
- One of my girl athletes, a Pre-AP student who struggles with attention and academic confidence issues, and who had never read an entire novel cover to cover, discovered The Hate U Give after I book-talked it to my classes. She was leery of the size of the book, but with encouragement and the relevant subject matter, she remained riveted for several weeks. She reads slowly and it took a lot of concentration and dedication for her to stick with it, but she finished and was full of emotion for the characters. She is now anxiously awaiting the movie adaptation, and hoping the actors portray the characters just like she pictured them in her head. She is so proud of herself, and her confidence is soaring. She kept asking for “more books like this” after reading THUG, so I gave her a copy of Monster by Walter Dean Myers. She’s already halfway through. Next in her TBR are All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds, and Dear Martin by Nic Stone. A reader is born!
- My principal has been very vocal about his endorsement of free choice independent reading in our classrooms. I appreciate this so much because I know that not all teachers are lucky enough to have the support of their administrators when it comes to students’ independent reading. My principal’s dedication to reading comes from his own experience – as a late reader himself, and then a reluctant one all through school – he had a high school English teacher who believed in and encouraged him, which helped shape him into the reading advocate he is today. Because of the support he received from one teacher, more than 900 students are reaping the benefits of free choice reading in the classroom!
- One of my girls, who receives special education services for a learning disability, was quitting a lot of books at the beginning of the year. I was worried she would become a serial quitter, when she finally found a book she loved. Jason Reynolds’ book in verse, Long Way Down, hooked her from the first lines. She blew through it, then read Hidden by Helen Frost. She’s finished several novels-in-verse and has moved on to her first full-length novel, None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio. She told me she’s read more books in the first eleven weeks of school than in her whole life.
- At first, my book-talks were how my students knew about the great books in my classroom library. Now that they have read several of them, the books are flying off my shelves and I have kids coming to class saying that another student told them about this book, or that book, and can they check it out? So-and-so said it was really good, Ms.! I just smile, take the requested book off the shelf, hand it to them and think, They’re talking about books. OUTSIDE OF CLASS!
- Our school participates in No Place For Hate, an initiative that helps educators promote anti-bias and diversity education in schools. This year, I’m volunteering with our 8th grade counselor as the teacher sponsor for our NPFH student coalition. As one of our activities, the student coalition members came up with the idea to promote diverse literature to the students on our campus, and we’ve worked with our librarian to pull diverse books and display them in the library. To advertise this movement, our coalition members participated in a photo shoot, which featured them reading diverse books, and it will air on our Student News very soon. I’m amazed at the ideas these kids have to promote inclusivity and diversity on our campus!
- At the end of the first grading period, I asked my students to self-reflect in writing on their independent reading progress so far. While I was pretty happy with the results of my classroom reading culture, I was admittedly a little disappointed that some kids only read one book in nine or ten weeks. When I read their written reflections, I found them to be refreshingly candid, honest, and forthcoming. The students who knew they could have been doing more admitted it and committed to pushing themselves. The students who only read one book, and about whom I was feeling discouraged, wrote about their pride in finishing a book already this year, because last year, they didn’t read even one book all year. Their obvious satisfaction and joy in this accomplishment jumped off the pages of their Reader-Writer Notebooks and into my heart, totally reframing my disappointment into beaming pride for these kids.
We choose who we are going to be by what we do, both inside our classrooms and out. Good Things. They’re happening all around us. Our students just need us to notice, to celebrate, and to cheer them on. They’ll do the rest.
“You can do an awful lot of damage with a handful or words. Destroy a friendship. End a marriage. Start a war. Some words can break you to pieces.
But that’s not all. Words can be beautiful. They can make you feel things you’ve never felt before.”
– John David Anderson, Posted
At the beginning of this school year, my 8th graders read a story from the book Flying Lessons & Other Stories, a collection of diverse short stories for teens edited by Ellen Oh, co-founder of We Need Diverse Books. Since it was our first piece of literature to read together, I gave my “No Hate Speech” speech to all my classes; basically saying that in this class, we will read stories about people who identify in many different ways and that reading about someone different from themselves is just that – reading – so no derogatory comments, noises, or gestures would be tolerated. They all nodded, and we read, learned, and enjoyed the story in peace. At the end of one class, a student stopped by my desk and said, “Ms., what you said about hate speech – that was cool. Thanks.”
Later, as my classes worked together to come up with our social contracts (an agreement on behavior between students and teachers), I added my No Hate Speech clause again. One student asked, “Ms., why do you keep saying that?” I explained that although most middle school students don’t mean to be hateful, they often use words meant to describe certain groups of people to insult each other (even in jest), and that we have to be aware of how those words can be hurtful and make an effort to not use them. I gave examples, we discussed why certain words used as insults would be harmful to certain people, and my students learned.
During independent reading time, one student approached me in between reading conferences to show me a page from the book she checked out from our school library. “Ms., what should I do about these words?” she asked, pointing to a few curse words on the page. Confused, I asked her what she meant. “I mean, do I just not read them? Like, skip over them?” she clarified. It took all I had in me not to laugh – she was asking me if she should censor her own SILENT reading. IN HER MIND. Hiding my smile, I told her if she is uncomfortable with what she’s reading, or if her parents are uncomfortable, she is welcome to pick a new book, but that I will never tell her what she should or shouldn’t read; that is her choice. Surprise showing in her eyes, she chose to keep reading the book.
During Open House Night, I pulled aside the parents of one student and shared my concern that he wasn’t bringing a book to school each day to read, and he had nearly refused to check one out from the library or from my classroom library. I explained to his parents the importance of having a book to read in class every day. My student’s father then told me that his son is reading a book at home, but they had not allowed him to take it to school for fear it would be confiscated due to its inappropriateness. My interest piqued, I asked the title of the book. “The Shining, by Stephen King,” the father said. I nodded, then told him his son is welcome to bring the book to school, assured him it would not be confiscated, and the only “inappropriate” book for his son is the one he and/or his son are not ready to read. The Shining showed up with my student at school the next day.
When sharing beautiful words (a Book Love by Penny Kittle strategy) in our books on Fridays, one student wanted to share, who was reading Tupac Shakur’s The Rose That Grew From Concrete, but said he didn’t think it was appropriate to read aloud because the poem was about racism. I encouraged him, and told him any book that is available in our school library is appropriate to read aloud, even if it is about a difficult topic. A few gasps erupted throughout the room – I mean, the white teacher just said it’s okay to read aloud about racism – and the student shared Tupac’s beautiful words with the class.
On the first day of school, after I explained my classroom library checkout system and the students were book shopping, one of my PreAP students, a black girl, saw Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give on my shelf. She squealed and said, “OMG, Ms., you have this book!? I love this book! This book is about black people and what we go through!” So I showed her some similar books. Her arms full, she said, “I can’t believe you have all these books about black people! Teachers never have these books! I can really check them out? Like, for real?” I told her yes, and she plopped down on the floor to look through the stack, taking home three titles that very day.
I tell these stories, not for ally cookies (please don’t), but because it is so surprising to me that THEY were all so surprised. Students, and parents, were all surprised that I would openly discuss hate speech, let kids read books they brought from home or checked out from our own school library, make diverse books accessible to students, and allow students to read aloud about difficult topics. Inclusivity and acceptance are, unfortunately in our world, surprising. As Banned Books Week kicks off, I’ll be talking to my students about how Words Have Power. I hope that, all school year, I can convey to them the importance of words, the ones we shouldn’t say in hate, and the ones we should even when they’re difficult.
What banned, powerful, beautiful words will you share with students this week?
Summer is here, and as the weeks of shuttling my kids to swim team practice, swim meets, and for-fun swimming consumes many of my waking hours, I also spend time chipping away at my enormous “To Be Read” list. Like many readers, my TBR list is an ever-growing mountain, and each time I read one book, it seems three more get added to the pile. Due to my job, for years I have read mostly middle grade and young adult fiction. I teach 8th grade as a special education inclusion teacher, and it is my job to push in to the language arts and social studies classes to co-teach with the general education teachers, serving all students with and without disabilities. Now, if you looked at my job description and my list of official duties, you would not find avid reader or passionate recommender of books or zealous advocate…
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Parenting in this modern age is hard – especially when your family is the type that doesn’t allow what everyone else’s family allows. In our family, we are pretty strict when it comes to the shows our kids watch, their access to video games and the internet, and bedtimes. Sometimes my kids complain about it, but they’re getting older and are beginning to see some negative effects of looser parenting in their friends and classmates. As a teacher, my students are often shocked when I tell them the rules at my house – my 13 and 10 year old eat what I cook or not at all, are in bed by nine, read every day (ok, mostly), practice their instruments, and aren’t allowed to play video games on school nights. We used to not allow even TV on school nights, but as they’ve aged we’ve let that slide if homework and chores are done. My son has a phone and it is locked up like national secrets are held inside. He doesn’t know any of the passwords for parental controls or to add apps. He doesn’t even have internet access on his phone, and a few times this school year I got texts during the day when his teachers would let the kids play test review trivia games that required him to log in to a session using his phone. The texts, to which I never responded, all looked something like this:
Mom what’s the restrictions password
Mom we’re playing a review game
Mom I need the password
I hate restrictions now it’s too late
Sorry, son. I know that soon I will have to loosen up and let him have more freedom so he can learn how to be appropriate with internet access, apps, social media, and more. The point is that I’m a careful parent. However, there is one area in which I am not restrictive. I am open and honest with my kids about race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation, and I let them read widely and diversely. I tell them the truth, and let them read the truth, no holding back (with age appropriateness in mind). I know many of my friends, and even family members, probably disagree with me on this. When it comes to talks of race, many of them are still of the “we don’t see color in our family” mentality. These two articles illustrate the problems with this philosophy if you’d like to read more – here and here. Now that I’m a teacher, a mom, and a reading advocate, my social justice soul won’t allow me to be anything less than honest with my kids. I’ve tried to educate myself over the past few years on the issues people from these groups face, and listen to or read about the perspectives of people from marginalized groups when they share their stories. I do it because I want to understand, and I want to pass that understanding on to my children. We buy and read lots of books, and I make a point to buy diverse books written by diverse authors – my kids read more books about people different from them than similar. As a parent, it’s my job to mold them into responsible, empathetic, social justice-minded citizens, and we need to read all we can about others so I can do that job well.
As with all aspects of parenting, no matter how hard you try to keep your kids’ world controlled and full of only the things you want poured into their heads, the outside world busts in and messes things up. This has happened in our family, and we had to do some damage control. One incident that comes to mind was when my son was in 5th grade and was going through the school district’s adopted drug-free program. Kids learn about the dangers of drugs from local police officers, and “graduate” with a certificate after signing an oath to remain drug free. My son came home from school one day and, as my husband listened to his playlist of rap music, announced that rap artists are all drug dealers and criminals, according to what he learned in the program at his school. That took some undoing, and many books and conversations later my son understands the lies and limitations of that statement. For great lists of books for kids of all ages that focus on Black voices, check out The Brown Bookshelf. There are many great books that show the truth and bust stereotypes. Another time, just this past year, my daughter was learning about Texas history in 4th grade. At the beginning of the year they (briefly) study the various Native groups that once lived freely on the land now called Texas. When I asked her what she learned she immediately told me about one Native American tribe that “actually ate the people they killed.” Now, in our family, we read all sorts of books, fiction and nonfiction, about Native people. As a mom, I work hard to dispel the stereotypes and myths that haunt people of Native cultures, as well as others. I do the same as a teacher with my co-teachers in our Social Studies classes. So, I was shocked that my daughter came home with this little tidbit from her lesson at school. I’m not even sure there’s any truth to this notion, this myth, so why tell the students at all? Even if there is a tiny speck of truth to it, there are so, so many interesting and valuable things to know about the Native people that live (and lived) in this area – why share something sensational and scandalous with a room full of nine year olds? Many of those kids will only ever remember that one “fact”, and nothing else, from that unit of study. I was perplexed, and had more undoing to do with my daughter, which meant we read books. Lots more books. I always use the American Indians in Children’s Literature blog for a list of books that are good representations of Native people, and it has never steered me wrong.
Even though my kids have a diverse group of friends, we use books to learn about people, time periods, and life situations that are different from our own. There are so many negative messages about people of various marginalized groups infiltrating my children’s lives from those in power – both locally and nationally – that I feel an urgency to show them literature that speaks the truths about these people. After all, I only get my kids for a short time, and I’m raising white, heterosexual, cisgender kids; it’s my responsibility to help them recognize their privilege and know how to listen to those who aren’t included in it. Reading diverse literature is the first step in their young lives toward becoming not only allies, but accomplices, to their friends and peers of color, who are LGBTQ, who practice other religions, or who have disabilities. Books open their hearts and minds to the lives of these people, and they learn to listen to their stories in ways they may not always encounter in our daily life. Which reminds me – we better get reading!
When I was a child, I loved listening to my Gramma tell stories from her childhood. Hearing her stories shaped me in ways I am still just beginning to understand; the teacher I am today is in part due to her stories surrounding me when I was growing up. I even wrote a blog post for Nerdy Book Club last year about how my Gramma and her stories have impacted my teaching. I have a copy of a family ancestry book that a distant cousin self-published and distributed years ago that contains a few of my Gramma’s stories, ones she wrote herself to be included in the family history. This year marks the one hundredth anniversary of my Gramma’s birth, and reading those stories in her own words, now that she has been gone for almost fifteen years, allows me to hear her voice in my head and makes me feel as if she is right here, telling her tales once again. She was a natural storyteller, a writer, even if the wider world never recognized her talent.
In the years before my dad died, my mom, sister, and I practically begged him to write down some of his own stories – we wanted to carry on my Gramma’s tradition of keeping history alive for the other side of our family. But my dad was a reluctant storyteller and would only occasionally open up enough to give us basic details about his childhood – taking the time to write down his stories just wasn’t in his heart. My dad has been gone for three years now, and I find myself longing for a way to “hear” his voice again, the way I hear my Gramma speak to me when I read her stories. This longing got me thinking about my own children, and how they love to hear me tell stories from my childhood, and how someday they may want to be able to hear me tell my stories again. So, as a little side project in my spare time, I’ve begun writing the stories of my childhood.
I grew up in a small town that was pretty isolated, not near any big cities, and in a time when things moved slower and were more innocent than they seem now. My kids are fascinated by this because they hear me tell stories of staying out playing in the neighborhood all day until sunset (I would never allow this now), or of having to drive to another town 90 miles away just to buy new shoes for school. My hometown still has a drive-in movie theater, one middle school, and one high school. Everyone knows everyone; I went to school with the same kids my entire life, and many of us are still close today. This concept is somewhat foreign to them because we live in a suburb of a large metropolis, surrounded on all sides by other suburbs, any of which could fit several of my hometowns inside. Many of the kids they go to school with move a lot, changing schools and towns often. Living in my hometown was a way of life my kids won’t experience for themselves, but I want them to know about it and be able to dip into that world and be able to share it with their own children someday. The unexpected surprise of this project is that not only is this a gift for my children, but for me as well; as I write my own stories, many of which include my dad, I find myself hearing his voice again as he speaks to me through my memories. He, and other relatives and friends who have been lost to time and distance, come alive on the page as I record these stories. I’m sharing one story about my dad below, one of my favorites. I think my Gramma, writer and storyteller that she was, would be proud.
A blast of air-conditioning, filled with the scents of leather and new upholstery, washes over us as we enter the front doors, a bell jingling to announce our presence. My mother, sister, and I weave through the maze of new furniture to the glassed-in cubicle in the back of the store. Daddy is inside it, speaking into the microphone, and we hear his voice surround us through the store’s speaker system, his real voice muffled by the somewhat sound-proof glass of the station room. When the red ON AIR sign goes off, we’re allowed inside his tiny world of radio waves and records. As long as I’m quiet, I get to thumb through the wooden crates of record albums, stacked as high as me. I find my favorites – Dolly Parton (because I like her laugh), Willie Nelson (because his braids are awesome), Barbara Mandrell (because she’s beautiful), and Merle Haggard (something in his voice sings to my soul, plus I met him once).
Daddy holds my hand with one of his, and shakes the man’s hand with his other one. I stand close, staring at the man’s boots, knees, belt buckle. I hear snippets of grown-up conversation.
“…met years ago…don’t remember me…radio station…the recording studio in…New Mexico…nineteen-sixty-…”
“Sure, sure, I remember…yes…long time ago. Who’s this we have here?” I listen more now because it’s clear the man is talking about me.
“This is my daughter,” Daddy says.
The man leans down to my level and pokes one finger into the underside of his hat’s brim, raising it up higher on his forehead and exposing more of his shaggy brown hair. He reaches out to shake my hand, and I place my small one in his. “Well hello there, young lady,” he says with a nice-sounding chuckle in his voice. “It’s mighty nice to meet you. My name is Merle Haggard.”
While I look through albums, Daddy catches the world up on the progress of Let’s Trade Even, his Saturday morning radio show. Armando traded an air compressor for Frank’s lawn mower, and Becky traded a crock pot to Judy, who needed a weather radio. With that business concluded, Daddy places the needle on the spinning vinyl after announcing the next songs. Headphones on ears, mouth to microphone, he speaks using his radio voice:
“Alright, folks, remember: if you have somethin’ to trade, and need somethin’ in return, give us a call here at the station and Let’s. Trade. Even. Thanks for listening on this Saturday morning to your local station, KAVE FM Radio. Up next is Ronnie Milsap, followed by George Strait’s latest hit.”
I make my selection and pull it from the crate. My sister, who is too little to care, holds my mother’s hand in the corner of the station. Daddy pushes some buttons, takes off his headphones, and swings the microphone off to the side.
“Come here, punkin’,” he says, patting his knee. I carry the record in its cover over to him and he helps me climb into his lap. He takes the record from me, and his sideburns tickle my cheek as he looks over the top of his glasses at my choice. “Glen Campbell, huh? Rhinestone Cowboy, I bet?”
I nod while he sets the record aside and squeezes me to him. I rub my finger on the smooth surface of the pearl snap buttons on his shirt pocket, my nose filling with his smell of Old Spice aftershave and black coffee. Ronnie Milsap’s voice fills the station, the furniture store, and our little town:
Pure love, baby it’s pure love
Milk and honey and Capt’n Crunch and you in the mornin’
Pure love, baby it’s pure love
Ninety-nine and forty-four one hundred percent pure love
Ronnie Milsap is right. It is.
Words, much like experiences, are often quite memorable. We can remember words that were said to us in anger, or in spite, many years after they were uttered. As a teenager, I dated a boy who was abusive, in both his words and his actions. He said things to me that I can still recall clearly today, twenty-five years later, as if it happened last week. I put up with it, wanting out but not knowing how to accomplish that by myself, until one day I saw a poster in the high school counselor’s office that said something like, Ten Ways You Know You’re In An Abusive Relationship. The words on that poster made me realize that my boyfriend’s behavior was not normal and that I needed to get out. Those words empowered me to believe in my own instincts, get help from some adults, tell my friends, and move on. However, the poster did not appear in my life until I had dated my boyfriend for three long years. I often wonder how things would have been different if I had read those words before I met him, or if not those words, maybe a book with a teenage character who is dealing with dating abuse. What if a teacher or librarian had put a book like that in my hands? Maybe I would never have put up with his behavior, or maybe I would have been able to leave the relationship sooner than I did. It’s not an experience I necessarily regret, because it helped shape the person I am today, and it is certainly no one’s fault but the abuser’s that it happened. My point is that words do have power, spoken or written, and access to those words can be life-changing for some young people.
This week, the American Library Association announced the Top Ten Most Challenged Books for 2016. Unsurprisingly, most of the books are written for young people. The theme of this year’s Banned Books Week is Words Have Power. People, especially parents, obviously know this is true – otherwise, they wouldn’t challenge young people’s books. If you’d like to read more about this trend in “parenting,” check out James LaRue’s recent blog post here from the Office For Intellectual Freedom. These parents fear that words will damage, change, or alter their children in some permanent way, perhaps in a way that is counterintuitive to the values they teach in their homes, and so they try to prevent their children from accessing those words. What these parents don’t realize is that being changed by words, letting words shape young people as they grow and learn, is not a bad thing. We all know that young people benefit from learning about the lives of people who are different from them, and people who are similar, even if those people are fictional. Many of the books that made the list for 2016 have LGBTQ characters, and we need only look at the staggering suicide rates of gay and transgender teens to know that they would benefit from access to books that tell their stories; likewise, their bullies and oppressors would benefit from reading about LGBTQ experiences so their own worldview and empathy can expand to be more inclusive. One of the top ten challenged books, Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell, contains a female character whose stepfather behaves inappropriately, even abusively, toward her and she finds it scary. What if the challenges to this book were successful? What if a real, live teenager, one who was dealing with a similarly abusive situation, was denied access to this book? A couple of years ago there was a case in Indiana where two girls came forward to report sexual abuse after reading the frequently challenged novel Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson as part of an English assignment. Book Riot’s Kelly Jensen wrote an open letter that discusses that news story and thanks the people who give kids challenged books. Those two girls found the courage they needed to come forward and name their abuser because of what they read in a book – we just never know the impact a story can have on a child’s life.
Our kids won’t be hurt by the words in books. The words that are spoken to them are far more damaging. As a teacher, it is my greatest privilege to match a book to a child. Because, somewhere, there is a teenage girl who feels trapped in an abusive dating relationship. She may be shy and insecure like I was – easy prey. I hope I notice that girl. I hope I have the chance to put the right book in her hands, a chance to give her a story that shows a way out, a chance to let her be brave and ask for help. I hope she, and all my students, always have unfettered access to the power of words. Their futures, their lives, may depend on it.
When the Star Wars movie, Rogue One, came out last December, my husband took my son and daughter to see it. My daughter came home with a strange look on her face. I asked her how she liked the movie, and she said “I think I need to watch happy movies from now on.” Rogue One, it’s safe to say, is not a movie with a happy ending. My daughter doesn’t like it when things don’t turn out well for the characters. She’s not much of a crier, but she dwells on things and worries a lot. She knows what she needs – that movie makes you love many of the characters, and then it breaks your heart, which is too much sadness for my girl. My son is also highly empathetic and has strong opinions about justice, but he can handle, and even loves, stories with big emotions. I remember when, after reading Wonder by R.J. Palacio out loud with him when he was in fourth grade, he decided the read the companion novella The Julian Chapter, which tells a Wonder story from the bully’s point of view. He read it one afternoon while I was out grocery shopping, and when I returned home he met me at the door. “Mom!” he greeted me. “You have to read this book RIGHT NOW.” Then, his eyes filled with tears and he choked back a sob. The book was a real heart breaker, written so well my justice-minded son felt empathy for a bully. I am much like him – I love a book that breaks my heart.
There was a period of time when I took a break from sad books. Sometimes things happen that make us change our reading habits simply as a method of emotional survival. Most of the time, though, I’m all in for a sad story, a tear-jerker, a rip-your-heart-out-and-stomp-on-it tale. It’s important for kids to read these stories, as well, and to learn in a safe way that no, things don’t always work out. A character can do all the right things, be a good person, and try hard to do well – and still, the resolution may not be what we hoped for. Knowing this can help prepare them for the times in their own lives when things won’t work out, despite their best effort or intention. For my students, rather than my own kids, the impact of a sad story can mean the opposite – my students sometimes have their own sad stories, and reading about a character who’s living one as well can help them feel less alone.
I’ve put together a list of some of my favorite BYHB, or Break Your Heart Books. It’s a middle grade list because I teach middle school, my own kids are in that age group, and, well, I just like middle grade books the best! So if you’re ready for some BIG FEELINGS, as well as some amazing literature, these books will not disappoint.
Just be sure to have a box of tissues nearby.
Upside Down In The Middle of Nowhere by Julie T. Lamana
Chronicle Books, 2015
Armani and her family, who live in the Lower Nines of New Orleans, struggle to survive when Hurricane Katrina hits.
Chained by Lynne Kelly
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012
Hastin is ten years old and lives in India, and he must take a job as an elephant keeper to help his family pay off a debt. He and his elephant, Nandita, must find a way to survive the clutches of the cruel circus master.
Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson
Lonnie is in foster care after his parents died, and he misses his parents and his little sister, who was adopted by a different family.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, Illustrated by Jim Kay
Conor’s mother is in the midst of cancer treatments when an ancient monster visits Conor to share three stories, and demand Conor share a story of his own – the truth.
Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt
Clarion Books, 2015
Joseph is a damaged thirteen year old who is placed in foster care in twelve year old Jack’s family. Jack tells Joseph’s tragic story as the two of them find out what family really means.
Pax by Sara Pennypacker, Illustrated by Jon Klassen
Balzer + Bray, 2016
Peter is a boy. Pax is a fox. They have been each other’s best friend for a long time, until war separates them.
Summerlost by Ally Condie
Dutton Books for Young Readers, 2016
Cedar is dealing with the grief of losing her father and brother. She meets a summer friend, Leo, and they work at solving a mystery and finding healing through friendship.
The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon
Subhi is a refugee living in a permanent Australian detention center – in fact, he was born there. He meets Jimmie, a girl living outside the fence, and his world begins to expand. The magical realism in this book is beautiful!
The Only Road by Alexandra Diaz
Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, 2016
Gang violence will result in an inevitable fate for twelve year old Jaime and his cousin Angela in their Guatemalan town unless they escape – which is exactly what they do. They must travel together through Mexico to reach the United States and join Jaime’s older brother, who lives in New Mexico. Their journey is dangerous and they are all alone.
What BYHB have you read? Share the titles!