Don’t Be a Book-Burner: Redefining “School Appropriate”

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Recently, I’ve been having conversations with colleagues about “school appropriateness” and censorship in books we provide to students via our classroom and school libraries. Here’s some of what I’ve heard thus far: some teachers are very concerned about the (lack of) maturity in our middle school students and about the mature content in some of the books published in recent months for middle grade readers. Some are concerned that these books are not “school appropriate.” But I think that comments begs the question, what does it mean to be school appropriate?

To me, school appropriate means keeping our students at the center of “school.” Students first.

The youth of today are facing much different challenges than most of us teachers faced during our youth. Our students deserve books that reflect those experiences. They deserve books that validate them. They deserve books in which the can see themselves. They deserve a platform on which to discuss these subjects. School-approporiate: providing those opportunities

Believing that students are not mature enough does not express high expectations for all learners. Ignoring their experiences does not make those experiences go away. We are simply perpetuating the book-burning tendencies of a white-washed education. I could go off on a nice little tangent on the representation of Thanksgiving and Native Americans in literacy and in our society right here, but I digress…I’m going to let Donalyn Miller wrap this up for me:

“Reversing the lack of accurate, inclusive, affirming portrayals of diversity in children’s literature is long overdue, but writing and publishing more diverse authors and stories only takes us so far if children never see these books. As a global community, we cannot continue to accept or perpetuate inequities limiting children’s open access to books….

Access means all children have books to read. Access means all children have books that accurately reflect and acknowledge their experiences, and the experiences of people with different stories to tell. All children deserve access to their full promise through the improved opportunities literacy provides.”

The House That Reading Built, posted on the Nerdy Book Club blog

With all of that in mind, I brainstormed this list of books that hit some of those “tough topics” we ought not to deprive our students from confronting.

Books That Are SO. IMPORTANT.

1. The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin This book tells the story of a young girl coping with the death of her best friend.

2. Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt Schmidt eloquently tells the story of 14-year old Joseph, who is sent to live with a foster family after trying to kill a teacher. This is the story of Joseph desperately searching for his daughter and finding family on the way. This one is a tear-jerker though. I’m still reeling.

3. House Arrest by K.A. Holt Written in verse, House Arrest is the court-mandated journal of Timothy, a young boy who got caught using a stolen credit card to purchase meds for his baby brother Levi, who has severe medical needs. Poignantly written, tackles the age-old philosophical question of whether or not it is ethical to do wrong for a greater cause.

4. The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern I really connected with this book. It is about a young girl whose father is diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, the stress and anxiety it causes her, and how she copes.

5. Wonder by R.J. Palacios This book has become extremely popular, and for good reason. Wonder tells the story of Auggie, a young boy with a facial deformity, as he begins his public education. It hits on bullying, accepting oneself, and empathy.

6. Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper This book is about a girl with cerebral palsy finding her voice.

7. Double Exposure by Bridget Birdsall Wisconsin represent! Birdsall tells the story of an intersexed teen whose troubles move her from California to Milwaukee, WI. George by Alex Gino got a lot more hype, but I think Double Exposure not only is better written, but also looks at the individual as a whole person with interests and needs and not just as a transgendered person.

8. All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely This book is so relevant right now: police brutality, racial tensions, #blacklivesmatter, white allies.

9. Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate This book has been a hit in our school. It explores homelessness and imaginary friends. Applegate does not disappoint.

10. The Saturday Boy by David Fleming This list wouldn’t be complete without a book depicting the experience of a military dependent!

11. Panic by Sharon M. Draper Though I have not gotten around to reading it yet, a student whose book recommendations I value and trust deeply, recommended this book to me. It hits on a topic not often discussed—sex trafficking. Listen, it is happening. Here. In Smalltown, USA. To our girls. This is not “somebody else’s problem.” Let’s educate our girls and our boys on the dangers that are often concealed as generous boyfriends at the shopping mall. Would be paired nicely with Sold by Patricia McCormick (story of a Nepalese girl sold into sex slavery, written in verse). For more information on sex trafficking, Girls Like Us is a great nonfiction read, a well.

12. Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead Just finished this one. Though the writing style might be confusing to some, the topics are incredibly relevant: sexting, friendships, divorce, recovering from trauma/accidents. One of my biggest problems with this book is that, though it was published in 2015, only references outdated sitting-duck intruder drills.

13. I Hadn’t Mean to Tell You This by Jacqueline Woodson Another one I haven’t read yet but has become relevant in my classroom because of its discussion of familial sexual abuse.

My message for you: Don’t be a book-burner. Be courageous. Confront reality and have these discussions in your classroom! I’d love to hear what books you recommend I add to this list! Comment below 🙂

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