by Emily Visness
In the past few years I’ve made an extra effort to read books by and about people from marginalized groups. The reasons are many, ranging from a desire for personal growth and understanding of people who are different from myself to simply wanting to liven up my reading life, but the main reason I read diversely is my students. I co-teach in 8th grade Language Arts and Social Studies classes in a Title 1 middle school (a school that receives federal financial assistance due to a high percentage of students from low-income families), and much of my job consists of getting kids to read. My students often don’t know what to read, or how to find a book that suits them, so I give a lot of book recommendations. Sometimes I give students books that reflect their own life experiences. Other times I recommend books to students with characters whose lives are different from their own. I believe that when students read a diverse array of stories they have the opportunity to grow into dynamic, empathetic, self-confident and accepting people. However, sometimes age-appropriate books with diverse characters are quietly removed from school libraries and classrooms because adults think the subject matter is inappropriate for kids. This is an effort to erase the experiences of certain groups of people. As a teacher of kids who identify with those groups, I believe it’s my responsibility to fight against that in any way I can.
Out of all the forms of censorship, quiet censorship is, to me, the most insidious. An act of quiet censorship is done through one person’s private decision to keep kids from accessing a book because the book conflicts with that person’s own beliefs. In other words, the adult either removes a book or doesn’t include a book in a collection because they believe something about the book is wrong or inappropriate, and therefore no child should read about it. This differs from self-censorship, which is when an adult removes or excludes a book to avoid the possibility of offending others, even when they have not been officially told to do so. The thing is, many schools have students living the experiences that are kept from them through acts of quiet censorship. Kids shouldn’t be made to feel that their stories are not worth telling. I’ve seen firsthand the excitement of a student reading a story about a character who looks like him or her, or has a similar life situation, or practices the same religion, or is also struggling with mental health. Although I try to know my students as well as possible, I often don’t know every aspect of their lives, and students have things they keep private. I may not know which student will need that book, but I certainly want that book to be available to students who need it!
Acts of quiet censorship by other adults are out of my control because, frankly, I probably won’t hear about them. It’s the nature of quiet censorship. I don’t even know of any instances in my school, although I’ve occasionally heard workroom stories about it happening in other schools. What is in my control is to create a positive, trusting relationship with students so they know I will advocate for them, and one way I can do that is by sharing diverse stories with them. I teach students of different races, religions, and sexual orientations, students who have various family structures, students who have disabilities (both visible and invisible), students who are immigrants, students with mental health issues, students whose families are dealing with addiction, students who live in foster families, and students who live in poverty. Their individual struggles are immense, yet they are brave, and bold, and resilient. We say that books are windows and mirrors. It’s every student’s right to look into that mirror, or through that window, and be validated by seeing themselves or grow by seeing someone else in the pages of a book.
Every year in one of my 8th grade ELA classes, my co-teacher and I hold a drawing for a student’s chance to read All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely (I only have one copy in my classroom library, hence the drawing). The drawing is held as the book project for that grading period is introduced, which includes the requirement of finding a news article about a current event that is similar to the conflict in the book a student chooses. All American Boys is a story told from a dual point of view – one black teenage boy and one white teenage boy – and the story centers around an act of police brutality toward an innocent black teen. Once I book-talk this book to our class and give students a chance to include their names in the drawing, I have several hands go up. Most of those hands, with a few exceptions, belong to the black boys. This story is a reality for them as a black teenage boy in America. This book tells the story of what their mothers worry about as they go out into the world each day. They are interested in reading this story because it could so easily, and frighteningly, be their own. Who am I to keep them from this story? This is only one example, and I don’t always get it right the first time. As a teacher, I do this for every child to the best of my ability. It’s my responsibility and my privilege to read diverse books for them, recommend diverse books to them, and promote diversity in the choosing of books for their school.
My school’s library has a great selection of diverse books, and our librarian goes above and beyond to make sure the collection is inclusive. We’re lucky - there are many options for my students to choose from. While accessibility is key, I don’t just put diverse books like All American Boys on my classroom library shelf and hope kids find it. I share it with them. We as teachers and librarians must fight quiet censorship by actively recommending diverse books for curriculum adoption, summer reading lists, school book clubs, or a class book study. We must book-talk diverse books to students and introduce them to new stories. We must challenge them to read books with characters who are different from themselves. We must give them stories they can identify with to show them that their own stories matter. We can fight quiet censorship by making the voices of the inclusive louder than those of the exclusive.
We as teachers and librarians have the power to collectively change the norm, reset the default, upset the status quo; we just have to use it.
Emily is a Title 1 middle school teacher who promotes reading to her students and actively attempts to put relevant books into their hands, a mom who is raising passionate readers, a believer in the importance of diverse literature for young people, a lover of banned or challenged books, and an advocate for all students’ right to read. She writes about her experiences, thoughts, and beliefs surrounding reading and books on her blog The Bookish Advocate (thebookishadvocate.wordpress.com). You can also find her on Facebook (The Bookish Advocate), Twitter (@bookishadvocate), and Instagram (TheBookishAdvocate).