“Social justice is the work of narrative reconstruction.” Kimberlé Crenshaw
Nicole Young shared this quote on a recent episode of the podcast Kidlit These Days on the topic of anti-racism, and when I heard it, I knew the next thing I wanted to write: a list some of the middle grade and young adult fiction I love that addresses racism and tells stories of black lives. The fiction that is speaking to my heart right now.
“Social justice is the work of narrative reconstruction.” With this swell of discussion and interest in the work of anti-racism, there are tons of lists being shared with books to read, especially to help us white folks catch up and educate ourselves. The New York Times best-seller list this week for non-fiction is flooded with titles by Ijeoma Iluo, Michelle Alexander, Ibram X. Kendi, and more. I am a voracious reader of fiction and a slow, cranky reader of nonfiction, so my work right now is to push myself to pick up these titles to deepen my understanding of the issues around racism and white supremacy.
At the same time, stories are my favorite way in to understanding. Last week, I read Nic Stone’s beautiful YA novel Dear Martin. I picked it up months ago at a used book sale, but it sat waiting towards the bottom of my TBR pile. It waited, in part, because I knew that it was about police brutality toward Black teens, I knew it would be hard to read, and I thought I knew how it would make me feel.
But here’s the thing. Until I enter into the story, and get invested in the lives of the characters, and let myself feel all the feelings through the narrative, I don’t really know. Not in my heart. There are studies that show that reading fiction cultivates compassion and empathy (like this one), and this has happened to me countless times. I opened Dear Martin knowing that it was about a Black teen who is a victim of police brutality. And knowing that, I still wasn’t prepared for how I would feel when I turned that page. And then beyond the gut-punch of that moment, reading Justyce’s inner monologues and the conversations he had with his best friend, his mom, his Black teacher, and his white girlfriend all gave me an even deeper understanding, in my heart, about what we’re talking about here. What white supremacy, systemic racism, and police brutality mean in people’s lives. In individuals’ lives, in their lived experiences. I’m not saying that we can’t develop understanding and empathy outside of stories, and from the real-life stories shared in the news, in talks and forums, or in conversations with loved ones. But reading is another way that my white self can find some of this understanding, without a Black person having to repeat their traumas and experiences for my education. Nic Stone did the work once as the author so that all of us can read it, as many people and as many times as we need to.
So. This list is for people, like me, for whom stories are a way in, and for those who might want to put these in the hands of their kids. Some are stories of racism and struggle, and some are stories that are, for a white reader, windows into Black lives. These are also all written by Black authors. (Thank you to Rudine Sims Bishop for the concept that reading provides windows into experiences that differ from our own, mirrors to see our own experiences reflected back, and sliding glass doors that we can look into and then step through as we learn and grow. Read more about it here or watch this video to see Dr. Bishop explain it herself.) I hope you find something that speaks to your heart, too.
As I was sure it would, my book-a-day life has slowed dramatically in the school year. And while I'd love to be reading more, it's okay. I have a couple of books to catch up on from the very end of the summer, as well as the few that I've read in September and October. So, onto the books!
In case you're looking for one book in particular, or if you're looking for all the books...here they are! And if it's included on the list, then I'm recommending it whole-heartedly.
I love #bookaday!! And I'm so totally not finishing a book every day, but I'm reading a bunch (almost) every day. As we wind through August, I have a nagging bit of worry about how I'll translate it to the pace of the school year, because I don't only want to be reading seriously in the summer. But for the moment? Reading in the summer is so. Good. Here comes my second batch of books.
My summer book-a-day has been really great, and I'm already thinking about continuing it past the summer. So far I've read 20 books in 23 days, which absolutely smashes any of my previous summer reading. A good chunk of them were picture books, and a few were middle grade graphic novels. It's not a race or a contest, but I'm having such a good time. Here's a round up of my middle grade reading so far.
So, this summer I've jumped into the #BookADay challenge and I'm SO INTO IT. It's recharged my reading life in a way that I badly needed. In the busy clutch of the school year, I just fall away from reading, and fall into habits of mindlessly watching TV or scrolling endlessly online in the evening. But man, do I respond to a challenge, and do I love filling out a chart! (I assigned myself the same reading log I gave my kids for the homework, and my geeky self loves filling it out every day.) I decided to interpret #BookADay for myself as reading a book a day, if not finishing a book a day. That made me feel like it's an achievable goal. I've been on my pre-summer-school break for six days now, and I've finished three middle grade books, and I'm working on another, plus Happy Teachers Change the World (which is incredible, more on that later).
I'm all about this version of #BookADay. And. I also want to supercharge it with SO MANY PICTURE BOOKS, because it's fun, and because I want to win my own #BookADay, and because I want to go into next school year with a ton of new mentor texts options. So on one of my free afternoons this week, I took myself to my local independent bookstore, and pulled myself a stack of books. Spoiler alert, it was wonderful.
(And in case you're worried about my bookstore, after reading this stack, I bought three books for my nephew's birthday, plus Awkward by Svetlana Chmakova, since I started the series earlier in the week and fell in love with Brave. More on that to come, too.)
On to the picture books!
One of the ways I'm lucky to live in my little self-contained world (meaning my class is self-contained special ed, combining at least two grade levels every year) is that I have a lot of freedom with curriculum, and my administrators have been pretty open to me doing what works for my kids. One thing this looks like is adapting our reading and writing programs. We've been following a workshop model for just a few years now (and I LOVE it), and use a boxed curriculum (SchoolWide Writing Fundamentals) to guide our teaching. Overall, I like it a lot, and it includes some excellent mentor texts. (I have a lot more thoughts and feelings about the curriculum, but I want to get down to the point of this post now!)
That being said, when I pulled out the 3rd grade level kit for fiction writing, I was underwhelmed. Also, it just didn't seem to match where we were as a writing community. While it was about writing fiction, most of the gathering work was about drawing on your personal experiences, and my instinct was that it would lead to a lot of personal narrative pieces...which we'd already done. My writers were ready to try something new. Also, the unit as written was an author study of Patricia Pollaco, and her books are lovely classics...that don't reflect my students very well, and felt a little dated to me.
So I decided to venture forth on my own, and make something that would energize my writers.
One of my munchkins is all about dates and calendars and birthdates (I mean, as am I, but he can memorize them waaaaaay better). The class calendar is always the first thing he looks at in the morning, and I’m pretty sure he’s the only one who updates it daily. When I fixed the calendar for February, he was of course inspecting it immediately upon arrival, and called across the room to tell me that I forgot to put Rosa Parks’ birthday.
“Oh, I did! When is it?”
“February 4th. Sunday.”
“Cool! You can add it to the calendar,” I said.
“I did,” he answered, matter-of-fact. Of course he did!
So then when we went over the calendar all together later, it was already there. And the kids kind of just assumed it was a holiday.
I have to say, I made pretty good progress on my summer reading list...especially the kidlit/YA list. The adult list did not fare as well, and there are two serious-looking novels that I checked out of the library sitting on the table looking at me right now. Ah well! Kidlit is too much fun! Find part two of my summer reading (and the next-ups) below.
I'm coming to terms with the fact that reading kidlit is just my favorite thing, and that I don't only do it for research purposes. Middle grade novels are my happy place, and there is SO MUCH GOOD STUFF OUT THERE! Sorry for shouting, it's just that I want to read (and share) all the books. That said, here's some of what I've gotten into so far this summer.
Writing about practicing literacy and freedom with my small humans.