Recently, a friend of mine (who I won’t name here, but who is a librarian I greatly admire) shared her frustration related to a request she received from a teacher who was looking for some book recommendations. The teacher’s request read (in part):
"But can you recommend real books? I feel like all the more recently published books have this big push for EDGY! Every family situation is dysfunctional, and every kid has a disability. What happened to Little House on the Prairie? Gimme some names of good, normal books, with normal everyday plots."
My friend was shocked by this request. And I really, really wish I could say I was, too. Unfortunately, I’ve bumped up against this kind of thinking more times than I can count.
And here’s the thing, every time I talk to a teacher who longs for the “good old days” when literature for young people was written entirely by white (straight, cisgendered, neurotypical, middle class, etc) people and comprised of a canon filled with books like Anne of Green Gables and Little House on The Prairie**, I know that they mean well. I know these are hard working educators who want the best for the young people they serve. I know that they cling to these books (and others like them) because they sincerely loved them when *they* were becoming readers. But… I also know that meaning well and doing good are often two very different things.
That said, we could have an entire discussion about why books from “the good old days” don’t hold up to modern scrutiny, but that’s a post for a different time. Plus, that’s a topic that has been unpacked by smarter folks than me. You can consider their thoughts here. Here. And also here.
Today I want to talk about what we do when we label some stories as “normal.”
When we label some stories as normal, or traditional, or “every day,” we label others, intentionally or not, as abnormal, unnatural, perverse, and wrong. And this is important, because those labels not only diminish the self worth of those readers who see themselves reflected in stories that feature diverse families navigating a challenging world, they also diminish the worth of those experiences, and by extension those readers, in the eyes of their classmates who are not reflected in them. The power of story is that it connects us. Labeling some stories as having more value than others only pulls us farther apart. Yes. It’s true that all our kids deserve to see their own experiences reflected in the books we put in their hands and on our shelves. But in a world that is running dangerously low on empathy, it’s equally, if not more, important that our students see experiences that are different from their own celebrated and valued in those books, too.
Often when those who opine about education say things like “teachers have to prepare kids for their world not ours,” they are referring to the use of technology in instruction, but the same applies to our continued reverence for the literary canon. There was a time when it could be argued that Little House and Green Gables represented the best of a very small volume of books being published for young people. But those days are over. While there’s still work to be done to ensure more representation in both the pages and authorship of books for kids, we’ve never before lived in a time with greater access to inclusive stories written specifically for young people. To ignore or dismiss those titles as being PC or “too edgy” is educational malpractice.
A very long time ago (I’m old, y’all!) someone told me that when people do the wrong thing it’s either because they don’t know (what the right thing is) or they don’t care. I’ve never forgotten that. What’s more, I’ve found it much easier to deal with folks who fall into the former category than the latter. But I also think there’s a third option: sometimes people do the wrong thing, because they are fearful of the right thing or the consequences that might result from being brave. As librarians (or teachers or administrators) when we receive requests like the one my friend did, it can be helpful to consider whether it’s a request that is born out of ignorance, fear or out of principle, because all three of these options provide us with opportunities:
If the person asking you to create a homogenous list of books featuring “normal” characters and families living traditional, wholesome lives, is doing so because they simply don’t know that there are better options, or that those choices can have a lasting negative effects on readers, this is an opportunity for you to help them grow their practice by opening the door to new information.
If the request is born out of fear (that more inclusive or “edgy” titles will be challenged by parents or spark conversations that make the teacher uncomfortable), this is an opportunity for you to support the teacher by standing next to them as they take what can be difficult first steps towards better practice.
And, finally, if the request represents a statement of principle, this is an opportunity to establish the fact that you do not share those values.
Either way, the list you provide the teacher should be the same. We cannot control whether or not the teacher ever buys, checks out, or even reads the books we suggest. We can, however, control whether or not our choices affirm the reality that every family is normal, every experience is real, every person is valuable and every single reader we serve deserves to see that reflected in the stories we endorse.
**Note: I do not hold a personal vendetta against the titles mentioned in this post. I’ve used them here as examples, because they are so often the titles that I see being held up by those who wish books for kids were more like the ones they liked as a kid. Please don’t @ me with defenses of those titles specifically. :)