When a student is struggling with their sexuality or gender, I don’t know what to tell them.
When an African American student struggles with society’s treatment of people of color, I don’t have an answer.
When an autistic student is easily frustrated or acts out, I don’t often know how to help them.
When I suspect a student is being abused by a parent, I can’t imagine what they might be going through.
When a student tells me they don’t know if/when they will see their parent again, I don’t know how to react.
I could go on and on with examples of situations our students go through which I can not personally relate to. I’ve lived the privileged life of a straight white male from a middle-class family in rural America. The biggest struggles I had growing up was acne and calculus. I couldn’t even fully relate to my adopted sister who for much of her life was the only minority in our small rural town. I had it good. By most measures, I had it great.
My exposure to the true diversity of the world has largely been through literature. It is in books where I have been able to at some level begin to develop understanding and ultimately empathy for experience foreign to me. It is because of this, I truly support and advocate for diverse reading experience for our students. Personally, I think it is an exciting time to be a reader. When I was in school, I don’t recall any books touching on issues of race, sexuality, abuse, refugees, gender, or many other topics we are seeing in young adult literature today.
It is important for students to read diverse topics and themes written by diverse authors. Even more so, I think it is crucial teachers themselves are reading these books. They can truly open a door of understanding for the students we serve. I wanted to share some of the books I’ve read recently which I think have tremendous value in opening a reader’s eyes to a different perspective.
One of the most recent books I finished was The Summer of Owen Todd. This was ripped my heart out and made me sick to my stomach. It is a story about a boy who is being sexually abused by an older male. Yes, that content is heavy but it is not descriptive and I think appropriate for a junior high audience. A good friend of mine, Pernille Ripp, said it was the kind of book that will save a life. I agree. Read it, learn from it, share it.
I struggled with suggesting a book for this given that it truly is a “new” phenomenon within young adult literature. I am sure more books will come out with this topic but two jumped out at me as critical reads for two different reasons. The first is Gracefully Grayson. I like this book because while it is about a young boy transitioning, it is more about acceptance. It truly is a book about finding yourself, accepting who you are, and the struggles most adolescents can relate to. The second book is The 57 Bus which is a little more mature in the content which would make me suggest upper junior high and high school. This book for me was the single more educational book I’ve read that addressed topics of gender. Not only does it have a powerful story about a crime that nearly kills a child, it educates the readers on pronouns, gender types, and a whole host of other content I was just plain ignorant of.
Given what we see in the media on almost a daily basis, it is no surprise the overwhelming amount of literature tackling the race issue. I feel as though I am beating a dead horse by saying everyone should read The Hate U Give, but it bears repeating. If you have not read this book, go purchase it now. It dives into the issues of race in a way no other book has. Another book I would put up there would be Dear Martin. This book is also a powerful story but told in a different manner that connects to the work of Dr. Martin Luther King. Both stories are powerful narratives of the experiences so many people of color have in our communities.
Another hot topic in books which was not included in my reading experiences as a student is that of sexuality. Gay characters were not included in the reading experiences I had as a student. I see a lot of books where a character’s sexuality is viewed as trendy and not authentic. For me, Simon Versus the Homo Sapiens Agenda is a great story written in a beautiful manner. It brings the perspective of a child who is struggling not with the sexuality but with the ways in which to share it with family and friends. There are a great many of our students who I know struggle with this very issue.
I have a number of students every single year who fall on the autism spectrum. For many students and staff, it can be difficult to relate to them or how their brain is working. I’ve found two books address this notion and do it in what I think is an authentic way. First is Anything But Typical that is narrated by a young boy who is autistic. It really helps show how the boy interacts socially and more importantly, what is going through his mind during various social situations. Another great read for older readers is Marcello in the Real World. This is about a high school boy with autism who is forced by his father to join the “real world” and work at his law firm for a summer. Again, this was a great narrative on social interactions but also the perceptions society has of these individuals.
I could certainly share more titles that have helped me broaden my knowledge base, perspective, and empathy. However, I will stop with these for now in hopes you will grab any of them you have not already read. Read them. Connect with the characters. Develop that sense of empathy within and for your students and peers.