A Veteran’s Day Book List

On a recent trip to my local warehouse grocery store, I had an experience that got me thinking about veterans and what they have sacrificed for our country.  I completed my shopping and was waiting in line to show my receipt on the way out the door when an elderly man, who was sitting alone at a table in the snack bar area of the store, could be heard shouting out a woman’s name as if he were in some distress.  I asked the employee as I handed her my receipt if the man was okay, or if he needed assistance, and she informed me that the staff had already checked on him and apparently his wife was shopping while he waited for her in the snack bar.

As the employee was telling me this, the man shouted out his wife’s name again, and he was rocking back and forth with what seemed like anxiousness, so I decided to check on him myself.  I approached the man and asked him if he was all right, or if he needed the store’s manager to find his wife, and he looked at me with some confusion in his eyes but replied that no, his wife was shopping and would be done soon.  It was clear from his body language, tone of voice, and general aura of confusion that he was experiencing some form of dementia. As I asked him again if he was sure he didn’t need anything, I noticed his ball cap, which indicated that he was a WWII Veteran.

As I reached out my hand for a handshake I told him that I could see he is a veteran, and I thanked him for his service.  His eyes cleared a bit, his face lit up in surprise and he smiled at me as he thanked me warmly for noticing, just before he resumed shouting for his shopping wife.  As I left the store that day, I thought about our older veterans and how many of them won’t be around much longer.  I sincerely hope that someone, somewhere, knows this man’s story.  Knowing the stories of our older veterans is so important, especially for today’s children, who have not lived to see the kinds of war our country has experienced in the past.

My own children do not have any older family members who have served in the military, at least no one that they live near and spend time with on a regular basis.  How can I show them the importance of appreciating the older veterans in our town, and in our country?  Their schools hold very nice assemblies for Veteran’s Day, but I needed more.  And what do I turn to when I need to teach children about life experiences neither they, nor I, have had?  Books! My librarian and teacher friends were glad to help with recommendations, and my own search at the public library turned up some great selections, so I’ve made a list below that includes picture books and middle grade books suitable for kids from early elementary to upper middle school age.  It’s difficult to narrow down the choices to books that only address the experiences of older veterans, since war affects so many, including civilians, so I’ve included some titles that showcase diverse experiences.  This list is by no means all inclusive – it is only meant as a starting point for anyone looking for books to help start the conversation with kids about veterans and war.

Picture Books

proud-as-a-peacock

Proud as a Peacock, Brave as a Lion by Jane Barclay and Renne Benoit (illustrator)

Tundra Books, September 2009

grandad-bud

Granddad Bud: A Veterans Day Story by Sharon Ferry

Authorhouse, August 2010

the-wall

The Wall by Eve Bunting and Ronald Himler (illustrator)

Clarion Books, April 1990

in-flanders-fields

In Flanders Fields: The Story of the Poem by John McCrae by Linda Granfield and Janet Wilson (illustrator)

Doubleday Books for Young Readers, October 1996

veterans-heroes-in-our-neighborhood

Veterans: Heroes in Our Neighborhood by Valerie Pfundstein and Aaron Anderson (illustrator)

Pfun-omenal Stories LLC Second Edition, December 2013

tuskegee-airmen

The Tuskegee Airmen Story by Lynn M. Homan and Thomas Reilly (illustrator)

Pelican Publishing, September 2002

Middle Grade Books

mares-war

Mare’s War by Tania S. Davis

Knopf Books for Young Readers, May 2009

striped-pajamas

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

David Fickling Books; First American Edition, September 2006

paper-wishes

Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban

Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, January 2016

port-chicago-50

The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin

Roaring Brook Press, January 2014

sachiko

Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story by Caren Stelson

Carolrhoda Books, October 2016

the-war-that-saved-my-life

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Dial Books, January 2015

This Veteran’s Day, let’s all find a veteran, young or old, and thank them for their sacrifice.  If you know an older veteran, ask them to tell their story.  If you know a civilian who has been affected by war, ask them about their experiences.  They may not want to talk about it, and that’s okay, but they may also appreciate the opportunity to share. Passing this information, these stories, on to future generations is how we learn from history, and that’s important for people of all ages to remember.

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A Gift of Stories by Emily Visness

Nerdy Book Club

As a special education inclusion teacher who co-teaches in middle school language arts and history classes, I work with students who face many challenges.  One challenge is getting them to see past the “work” of learning and see the fun in the stories that surround them through their learning in school.  A love for stories is something I’ve had my entire life, and I have my Gramma to thank for that.

My Gramma was an interesting woman who, when described to someone else, could almost seem like a fictional character herself.  The stories she told of her early life on a Canadian island were filled with adventure, mystery, and fun.  She made the characters of her relatives come alive in the sharing of her memories – her stories.  As a child, I heard these stories over and over and I now feel as if I really knew my ancestors, even…

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Something Wicked This Way Comes…

Feeling scared is fun for many people, including myself.  Even as a child, I loved the thrill of a spine-tingling story.  Growing up in New Mexico surrounded by Mexican American culture, I was exposed to tales of La Llorona and the Chupacabra, as well as all the usual chilling tales passed from one generation of children to the next.  My friends and I played Light As A Feather Stiff As A Board at slumber parties, and one time we all swore with our whole souls that we actually lifted our friend above our heads with each of us only using two fingers.  There were nine or ten of us, but still!  We KNEW it worked, which completely freaked us out.  Especially when our friend’s mom popped her face up to the window from outside wearing a werewolf mask – our screams could probably be heard three streets over.  When my best friend and I were about ten years old, I convinced her to watch the old Disney movie starring Bette Davis, The Watcher In The Woods, and to this day she still has not forgiven me.  She says I scarred her for life and that I am sick and twisted – and she is absolutely right.  I do love love love a scary story!

Movies, books, folk tales, legends – the scary ones are so much fun for kids.  The mystery of What If and the thrill of the unknown can spark a child’s imagination like nothing else.  I realize that some children cannot handle scary stories – heck, some adults can’t handle them – but there are opportunities to expose kids to scary stories in a safe way that allows them the thrill without guaranteeing they’ll be sleeping in your bed for the next several years.  With my own children, I started out with fun Halloween picture books and as they got older, we moved to small chapter books.  We watch the silly family Halloween movies every year, and my twelve-year-old recently watched the Netflix hit Stranger Things.  They’ve learned to enjoy spine-tingling stories in the safety of their home with me to guide the way, and so far they don’t seem to be permanently damaged!

For myself, I enjoy a horror story that has a slow build and a great plot with deep character development.  I’ve never been a fan of slasher movies with lots of icky violence because the plots are so poor in those stories. Formula-writing is definitely not a favorite of mine, which many authors of horror or paranormal fiction seem to use. In other words, I need it to be a great story, not just a scary story.

Whether you’re introducing kids to scary stories or reading them yourself, this time of year is the perfect backdrop for your scary reading life.  Here are some suggestions for all ages:

the-elementals

The Elementals by Michael McDowell

Valencourt Books, June 2014 (original publication 1981)

the-little-stranger

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Riverhead Books, May 2010

 

room-on-the-broom

Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

Puffin Books, August 2003

old-haunted-house

At The Old Haunted House by Helen Ketteman and Nate Wragg

Two Lions, August 2014

scary-stories

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell

Scholastic Inc., October 1989

nightbird

Nightbird by Alice Hoffman

Yearling, March 2016

Have fun reading, and leave the light on!  You never know what lurks in the dark…

 

The Magic of Middle-Grade

My family, like many families, enjoys watching movies together.  My kids are at that “sweet-spot” age where most family movies are enjoyable and appropriate for both of them – the oldest isn’t too old (or too cool) to have fun watching, and the youngest isn’t too young to be scared or not get the jokes.  Recently we watched a few movies together that are movies based on books and/or remakes of movies that were popular when I was their age, in addition to some cult classics that have yet to be remade.  Watching these movies, and feeling the nostalgia of my own childhood when remembering the original films or books, made me realize what it is I love so much about middle-grade fiction: the magic of possibility.

Kids in middle school still believe. They believe they’ll grow taller, run faster, be a famous sports star, or singer, or actor, or scientist – their world is full of possibility and nothing is out of the question. Although most would never admit to it, they are still hopeful that adults are wrong, and there really are superheroes, mythical creatures, ghosts, hidden treasure, and mysteries to be solved.  The possibility of those things being real was what I loved best about being a kid, and now it’s what I love best about middle grade fiction.  The movies from my childhood that have been remade for today’s children evoke that same sense of possibility, and there are many middle grade books that do the same.  Here are a few of my personal favorites, in all genres, that, to me, showcase the magic of possibility –

 

the-imaginary-2

The Imaginary by A.F. Harrold and Emily Gravett

Bloomsbury USA Children’s, 2015

the-one-and-only-ivan

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

HarperCollins, 2012

the-screaming-staircase

The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co.) by Jonathan Stroud

Disney-Hyperion, 2013

out-of-my-mind

Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010

doll-bones

Doll Bones by Holly Black

Doubleday Children’s, 2013

salt

Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War by Helen Frost

Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2013

the-marvels

The Marvels by Brian Selznick

Scholastic Press, 2015

wolf-hollow

Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

Dutton Books for Young Readers, 2016

These are just a few examples of excellent middle-grade fiction that show readers what can be possible – whether or not it’s factual or realistic isn’t the point.  After all, maybe there ARE invisible dragons who befriend children in the forest.  Maybe there ARE friendly giants who bring dreams to humans each night. Maybe there ARE geniuses hiding in plain sight.  Maybe there IS a hidden tunnel that leads to pirate treasure. Maybe there ARE ways to travel to other dimensions with the help of a telekinetic friend.  Maybe there really IS a school for witches and wizards, and the admissions letter is about to arrive.

Maybe the impossible is, well, possible. 

Banned Books, Again!

The second half of my banned books photo series was featured last week on Facebook and Instagram, but in case you missed it, here they are!

Day 4

not-old-enough-yet

Inappropriate? Sexually explicit? Unsuited to age group? Contains profanity? Unnecessary violence?

Yup. These are excellent Young Adult books that someday my son will be old enough to read. At twelve years old, however, it is my opinion that he’s not quite ready for the mature situations addressed in these books. That is my parental choice to make, but not a choice I’m allowed to make for other people’s children.


In a few years I’ll grant him the freedom to read all these shocking books – he’ll learn from and enjoy the amazing stories contained between their covers. For now, though, a little peek will have to do…

Day 5

racial-insensitivity

How can a book written by a black woman about one black girl’s hair and a historical novel depicting life in the oppressive 1800s South be considered racially insensitive?

Instead, readers could label these books honest, eye-opening, revealing, educational, relatable, or valuable. Readers don’t need a single narrative – they need many stories. Libraries, like public schools, must offer something for everyone, even if a book makes readers uncomfortable.


Often when we’re uncomfortable, we learn and grow. Or, we could just enjoy a really good book.

Day 6

religious-viewpoint

Banned for religious viewpoint? In other words, banned because these books have Muslim characters. However, the Holy Bible is on the top ten list this year of most challenged books, so maybe some people just don’t like any depiction of any religion.


It would be great if, instead, these books were read and appreciated for depicting brave female characters overcoming what is, to most Americans, unimaginable adversity. My kids will definitely learn from the powerful girls in these books!

Day 7

scary-stories

What was that noise?

Was it the rustling sound of someone sneaking up behind you? Or was it the sound of parents challenging a book because they deemed it too scary?

Happy October and last day of celebrating our freedom to read! Here’s hoping, over the next year, you read freely, bravely, and rebelliously (maybe not a real word, but whatever). There was that noise again…I’m not scared, YOU’RE scared…

Thanks for joining us in our celebration of Banned Books Week! 

Banned Books!

This week I’ll be sharing a photo series that celebrates banned or challenged books – check out Facebook or Instagram for daily updates, or check back here on my blog where I’ll be posting several days’ worth a couple of times this week.  

Day 1:

picture-book-photo

Happy Banned Books Week! This year’s BBW is celebrating books by and about diverse and marginalized people, so why not start with some picture books that are sure to broaden a child’s empathy and worldview in truly horrifying ways – such as celebrating a win in civil rights and accepting people for who they really are. It’s shocking, really.

Day 2:

 

globe-photo

ALL kids can learn an important lesson from a brave librarian in Afghanistan who happens to be Muslim – and that lesson is NOT teaching children to pray to Allah against their Christian parents’ wishes.

Maybe, just maybe, the lesson is that a person who is dedicated to something important, like the preservation of their culture’s literature, can find creative ways to work for a greater purpose. But hey, that couldn’t possibly be this book’s message…could it?

Day 3:

library-photo

Not all books are formally challenged or banned – some are victims of soft censorship. Dis-inviting authors from school visits and deciding not to order a book for a school or classroom library based on personal beliefs is a violation of children’s right to read freely.

Books with transgender characters or characters fighting addiction may be the mirror or window desperately needed by a child. How dare school district administrators or librarians act as gatekeepers and deny them that opportunity?

The Myth of Declining Standards in Literary Instruction

An article was recently shared on Facebook by one of my former teacher colleagues, originally written two years ago, about the differences between a middle school reading list from 1908 and a middle school reading list in 2014. The author of the article compares the two lists on three criteria: Time period, thematic elements, and reading level. You can find the article here. The author’s argument leans toward the typical pearl-clutching distress many adults love to display over modern education and “kids these days.” Well, as a middle school teacher I am a participant in modern education, I teach today’s kids, I am a vigorous supporter of public schools, and this author’s arguments are complete hogwash.

Time period – the author uses a modern middle school reading list that includes a few older, classic titles such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Fahrenheit 451. The list also includes many modern titles written within the last twenty years. The author of the article argues that this is a disgrace because although she concedes that older does not mean better, teachers in 1908 were more likely to provide students with “time tested, classic literature” rather than popular, modern books that may be a “passing fad.” But here’s the thing. In 1908, young adult or middle grade literature was practically nonexistent. Literature in general was limited – there weren’t as many authors writing books, and the ones who were writing were generally white males. The 1908 reading list includes only two women (both white), and the other eighteen titles are written by white men. In comparison, the 2014 reading list includes eight women (two are women of color), and one male author of color. Only five of the authors are white males. Although not as diverse as it should be, this list is much more representative of the students in today’s classrooms than the 1908 list. The other factor to consider is that in 1908, pretty much the only students who were receiving an education were white and most were middle class. Public school demographics have greatly changed, which brings me to my next point.

Thematic elements – The author of the article argues that the older, classic titles from the 1908 list give students a “vast array of themes crucial to understanding the foundations upon which America and western civilization were built.”  My counter to that argument is, however, that literature for students does not need to only address the foundations of American and western civilization. Modern public school students are not all products of western civilization, and the ones that are need exposure to the diverse literature of the world at large, not just literature that conveys American exceptionalism and a white, male, Christian-centric viewpoint. Most of my students are NOT white, Christian, or even born in America (or have parents who were born in America), and they need titles on a middle school reading list that represent them.  And anyway, we teach students in ELA class that “theme” is something that should be true for anyone, anywhere in the world, at any given point in history.  A book with characters of color living in a country that is not part of western civilization can teach students valuable themes that can also be true in their own lives.  One statement the author made in her article really raised my hackles – “A continual focus on modern literature narrows the lens through which children can view and interpret the world.” Narrows the lens? WHAT??!!?? That is one of the most misguided, incorrect, and ridiculous statements I’ve ever heard a person say about modern literature for kids. We are living in a time where the amount and quality of young people’s literature is amazing. There are so, so many great authors who write high quality books for middle school students! The only improvement I can even pinpoint is directed toward the publishing world, not at public education reading lists, and that is the need for more diverse authors and more stories about diverse characters. Even though more diverse literature is needed, students’ viewpoint and interpretation of the world is definitely not narrowed by focusing on modern literature. Quite the opposite.  Modern students are truly blessed to live in a time with so much literature available to them. Most American public schools have libraries, many communities have public libraries, and students are more likely now than ever before to actually own books in their homes. I know that many students, especially those living in poverty, do not own books, but I am comparing now to 1908 when most public schools did not have a library, and books were something only the wealthy owned. Overall, modern students are much better supplied with a huge amount of literature that is more diverse than ever before in history, and that can only be beneficial, not detrimental, as the article’s author states.

The last point the article’s author examines is reading level. She compares the first paragraph of Avi’s Nothing But the Truth to Longfellow’s Evangeline and she criticizes the former as having “simple words and casual sentence structure,” then praises the latter for having “a rich vocabulary and complex writing format.” First of all, Longfellow wrote for ADULTS, and I’ve already discussed the almost complete lack of young people’s literature in 1908. Avi writes for middle school students. Also, students in 1908 often finished school after the eighth grade so it makes more sense to expose them to more adult literature, even if young people’s literature had been available, because they were about to graduate from public school. In modern times, students continue on to four years of high school where they are exposed to more classic, complex, and adult literary selections. Modern middle school is not the place for an emphasis on that type of literature. The author is comparing apples to oranges, and her arguments are weak.

Middle school is a time to expose students to a variety of diverse titles that deal with modern issues facing people living in the world today. It’s a time to get them interested in reading, curious about the world they live in, the ENTIRE world, not just the United States. It’s a time for them to read books about characters and by authors that look like them and live in situations similar to them. It’s a time for students to read about characters living in current, complex cultural and political situations.  Classic literature has its place and its value, but there is so much more to offer modern students. This teacher is very happy that the modern trend in education is to push aside some of those old white dudes to make room for the beautiful array of colorful, meaningful, moving, and diverse stories that can widen, not narrow, students’ understanding of the world.

A Diverse Disappointment

The bookternet has been raging about diversity in publishing for a good couple of years, and all the concerns are valid – on that, most bookish folks can agree.  We DO need more books published that are written by people of color!  We DO need more books published with characters of color, or with disabilities, or characters that are LGBTQIA, or with mental illness, or who live in poverty!  Personally, I make a point to purchase and/or read books that meet all of these criteria because 1) these are good books, 2) I think it’s important to let the publishing world know, with my book purchases or library checkouts in my small part of the world, that I value these books and want more of them, and 3) I teach kids who meet one or more of the descriptions above and want to have relevant books to put in their hands.  However, I am a white, middle-class, educated, non-disabled, mentally healthy, straight, cis person who reads these books – I have no personal experience in the situations these characters face, so I’m just blindly hoping that the authors get it right and accurately depict the characters in an honest manner without being stereotypical.  I have never experienced the outrage and disappointment that many people who meet the above descriptions must feel when they read a book about marginalized characters that just gets it ALL WRONG. Until recently, that is, and let me tell you, my outrage is still simmering, ready to boil over to anyone who will listen.

A few weeks ago, I was anxiously awaiting the release of a middle-grade book that was promoted as realistic fiction with magical realism set in New Mexico.  What WHAT?? This is in my wheelhouse, y’all! I LOVE middle grade fiction!  I LOVE magical realism!  I am FROM New Mexico!  This book description rang all my bells, so as soon as it was for sale I ran out and bought a copy.  This is not a book review, so for the purposes of this post I will not reveal the title, but if you are active in the book world at all (or can do a simple Google search) you can figure it out.  This book partially took place on a ranch, and in addition to growing up in New Mexico I also grew up around ranching families and spent a lot of time on ranches, so I know a thing or two about that culture.  And it is a culture, not just a vocation.  New Mexico also has a large Hispanic population, and although I am not Hispanic, I did grow up with very rich Hispanic culture all around me, so I know a little about that as well.  I was extremely excited to read about something I KNOW about. What I was not prepared for was the crushing disappointment and subsequent rage I felt when I discovered how many mistakes the author made while telling this story.

I won’t go through all the terrible missteps the author made in the details of this story; I will just say that after some light internet stalking I discovered that the author is white, young, and has no history that I can find of living in New Mexico at all.  She lives near New Mexico in another state – but Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and Texas are not New Mexico.  New Mexico has a culture and landscape that is uniquely its own. This author made some unforgivable mistakes about the Hispanic culture in NM – one example I will share is that she had all the Hispanic children in the story willingly anglicize their names.  ALL the children, even undeveloped fringe characters, not just one as a quirky character trait.  This is a common misconception that many white people with no experience in the Hispanic culture, especially the NM Hispanic culture, make.  They think Hispanic people want to have names that sound more American or English. They don’t.  I grew up and later taught school as an adult in NM, and the Hispanic people I knew with Spanish names were very proud of their cultural heritage, and if you mispronounced their names they would immediately correct you.  This author assumed Hispanic children in NM are ashamed of their Spanish names, which made it obvious to me she wrote the story from her white perspective and didn’t do research to get it right.  She also made some glaring mistakes in the descriptions of the landscape and cities of NM and the ranching culture.  The mistakes were so, so bad that it was clear the author maybe drove through NM once and perhaps stopped to eat in Albuquerque, but that must have been the extent of her research.

This book made it clear to me that the publishing world still has a long, long way to go when it comes to diversity.  If a Hispanic person had read the book during the editing process, or if the author had consulted Hispanic people from NM during her writing process, or if the author talked to someone familiar with ranching in NM, or if the author actually spent some time in NM exploring the landscape, it could have been much better.  I searched and searched online reviews of the book to see if anyone else noticed the problems like I did, but most reviews just raved about the book.  Again, this made it clear to me that there is even a serious lack of diversity in the people reviewing books. I found one review, from a teacher in Albuquerque, who called BS on the book. One. It made me wonder if books I’ve read and loved that centered around a location or culture I’m unfamiliar with could be just as bad, and I’ll never know because I have no experience to give me background knowledge.  I hope not.  What I do know is that authors need to be better about knowing what they don’t know, authors need to have more diverse beta readers when they write about a culture different from their own, and the publishing world needs people from diverse cultures and ethnicities working as editors. I have no control over those things, but I do know, now, what it feels like to have a place and culture I love terribly misrepresented in literature. I was surprised at the amount of anger I felt, and have decided the best way for me to deal with it, now and in the future, will be to call out the BS when I read it.

Reading Through Grief

Readers read for different reasons – for fun, for work, for school, for their kids, or to learn something new – but for many, reading is an escape.  There is a myriad of reasons for needing an escape from our everyday lives, and recently my own personal reason for reading was as an escape from grief.

When my dad died, I don’t think I experienced all the traditional five stages of grief.  I wasn’t angry, I didn’t bargain, I didn’t suffer from depression – he was 82 years old, had been battling leukemia for over a year, and my family was truly lucky that he felt good for most of that last year until the very end.  Of course, after his death, the feeling I did have was intense sadness that I would never see my dad again, never talk with him, or – most difficult to bear – never again hear his voice.  At first, I coped with that sadness by reading stories about characters dealing with situations that were a complete departure from my everyday life of missing my dad.  I wanted to fall into a fictional world where the characters’ problems were so different from my own that I wouldn’t feel the heavy weight of loss for a little while.  In the beginning, I especially read YA fantasy, because that was such a departure from reality for me that I could stop thinking about real-life things on Earth for a bit.  It helped me to occupy my mind with something other than the absence of my dad.  I stayed away from realistic fiction because that genre is full of dying characters, or characters dealing with the death of another character, and I just couldn’t handle it.  I couldn’t add fictional grief to my own. Not just then.

I found that during the time right after my dad’s death, I started buying some books as well.  I’ve always bought books, but in the past have tempered my purchasing with checking out books from the public library, or the middle school where I teach.  My dad’s death awakened a need in me to not only read stories as an escape, but to surround myself with them as well.  I bought middle grade fantasy books “for my kids,” and eventually moved into the dreaded realm of realistic fiction.  I had once avoided it because of the Dying Characters Thing, but after the first few months following my dad’s death, I found I looked forward to reading about characters who had also lost someone.  This time, it helped me to know that I could find someone who understood how I felt, even if that someone was fictional. It made me feel less alone.  Although I have plenty of friends who would understand if I wanted to talk about my grief, and my family would be there for me if I needed to discuss missing my dad, I’m not really the kind of person who has outward displays of emotions that might make me cry in front of people.  My fictional friends provided the comfort I needed without making a big deal out of my sadness or wanting to make it go away, and they enveloped me in comfort by wrapping around me on the shelves in my home.

Later that year, I continued my book buying therapy by purchasing nonfiction titles about history – both local and national.  My dad was a retired high school history teacher, and he loved talking about history and politics. Local history of the area where I currently live, but did not grow up in, was a point of interest for my dad as well, since my paternal 3x great-grandfather is buried in a church cemetery only a few miles away. When my dad was alive, history books written by local authors about the area where I live were something we enjoyed reading and discussing together, especially how the history related to our shared ancestor. Months after he was gone, every time I found a title that both he and I would find interesting, I bought it and read it, imagining the questions I would ask him and what he would have to say about the issues and facts addressed in each book.  To my surprise, I found that I could hear his voice again, which is what I missed the most. My loss of him was eased as I heard his voice in my head and in my heart, in imagined conversations about the topics in history we were both interested in and passionate about.

Reading books after my dad’s death helped me escape, helped me work through my sadness, and eventually helped me realize that my dad is still here.  My dad will always be here, a part of him living on in me.  When I find myself missing him, I can hear his voice again by simply opening the cover of a book.

Banning Empathy

There have been articles written and research performed in the last few years about how reading builds empathy for others.  Parents, teachers, and readers know this is true – we don’t need research to tell us that.  When I read books with my students in class, I can practically see their empathetic brain cells growing when they feel sadness or outrage for a character in a story.  It’s great to watch them feel all the feelings with a character in a difficult or impossible situation, to watch these middle schoolers transform right before my eyes.  There’s a saying about how people may forget what you say or do, but will always remember how you make them feel.  My students never forget how things make them feel – they are chock full of BIG FEELINGS because that is just the nature of middle school kids.  What a perfect age to tap into that bottomless well of emotions and pour in some empathy using stories!

Feeling big feelings can be fun, as well. It’s exciting to rage about something you’re passionate about, or feel anger and indignation for someone else’s situation. I have these things living inside my head that I call my Social Justice Monsters.  I picture them as an angry mob of Muppet-like creatures in my brain who band together to shout curse words and other outraged nonsense whenever I read a story where something that is happening to the characters is NOT RIGHT or UNFAIR.  My SJ Monsters frequently rise up and make some noise when unfair things happen in the real world, too.  One thing that happens IRL that they love to be outraged about is a book challenge.

Book challenges really set off my SJ Monsters, mainly because if a challenge in a school district is successful, then students will miss out on an opportunity to read about someone different from themselves, or read about someone in a similar situation to their own, which builds empathy and acceptance in their young brains.  All year long I keep up with book challenges that make the news across the country, and the ALA just released the list of most challenged books from 2015.  The list woke up my SJ Monsters because the titles that make the list always seem to contain marginalized characters that are going through a tough time.  I teach in a diverse Title 1 middle school, and most of my students have a very narrow life experience.  We talk about books being windows and mirrors, but when a challenged book is successfully removed from a curriculum or school library, we cover a mirror and shutter a window for students.  When we take stories away from kids, we lose an opportunity to build empathy in their developing brains.  My students are going to grow up and live in a world full of people who have lived through or come from many different life experiences. If their empathy well is full, even when their personal life experiences have been limited, they are more likely to find and give acceptance as adults.

The parents who challenge books in schools are feeling a big feeling, too – fear.  Parents are either afraid their children will be emotionally damaged OR that they will question and abandon the beliefs and values that have been taught in their homes.  Movies are not challenged (usually).  Video games are not challenged. The internet is widely available to kids on their smartphones, and that is accepted as a normal part of modern society.  But books are powerful.  They have the power to change people. On some level parents who challenge books know this, and they feel fear.  My students may never travel the world or experience cultures very different from their own.  They cannot travel back in time or know what it’s like to be in someone else’s life situation.  The one thing they can do is read, and by reading, their empathy for others in situations they can never imagine or experience will grow, and as humans they will be changed for the good and will have the power to change their world. Students who feel empathy for others will be adults who promote equality and tolerance for all people living in our world.  Reading can open the shutters on the windows, uncover the mirrors, and help students build empathy by feeling all the feelings for someone else.

And then, when my young readers grow up and spread their empathy and acceptance across the land, maybe, just maybe, parents will stop challenging books, and my Social Justice Monsters will shut the hell up.