jacob's new dress September 05


Windows, Mirrors, and Portals to Magic by Kirsten LeClerc

I am arranging new books on a display shelf when a volunteer breezes by. She stops for a moment and says, “More new books? I took a look at that one earlier–maybe you should tuck it away somewhere before the wrong kid takes it home and you have a challenge on your hands.” She points to Jacob’s New Dress by Sarah and Ian Hoffman.


“But it’s a really good book, and it’s gotten excellent reviews,” I reply.


“Maybe so, but I wouldn’t put it out if I were you. Especially with HB2 and all that happening,” she says with a wave as she walks out the door.


I am momentarily flustered, second guessing myself on this purchase. This woman is someone I admire, a retired school librarian who volunteers regularly as a reading tutor. Could she be correct? Should I put the book away in the professional section or give it to the guidance counselor to pass along to the “right kid” when the time comes?  I feel her comment about HB2 still hanging in the air, and I am angry. Angry at the busybody politicians in my state who rushed to pass this appalling bill in an emergency session. Angry at myself for tuning it all out and not really caring about HB2 until it began to affect me personally, when I realized that it was negatively affecting my favorite bookstore and my school’s opportunities for author visits.  Angry that someone was suggesting it might be a reason to remove a book from my library.


I sit down with the book and flip through it again, taking in the colorful illustrations of Jacob in his makeshift towel dress, and then his real dress that he and his mom sew together, his “soft, cottony, magic armor.” I think of my own daughter, who would have enjoyed this book a few years ago when she was going through a phase of shopping in the boys’ section of clothing stores. In fact, why wouldn’t she enjoy it now? It’s a great story, and who is the right or wrong kid for this book? This is a perfect example of a windows and mirrors book that offers the reader a lense into someone else’s life, a chance to feel understanding and empathy, or a reflection of their own self.


jacob's new dress


Who, exactly, is the right or wrong kid for any book? I remember my very first year in the classroom, when I was teaching reading at a high school in Vermont. I had several students from Somalia and Sudan who had come to live in the Green Mountains through Burlington’s Refugee Resettlement program. I kept choosing books for them to read that were about war and refugees because I thought that was what they needed in order to make connections to their background experiences. Finally, about halfway through the year, one of the boys said to me “All these books are so serious. No fun at all.” It was a pivotal moment, and I promised to find something different to read next. After much deliberation, I chose Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, and it ended up being our most successful book group of the school year. The students loved the magical story of Charlie, Willy Wonka, and his factory more than I ever would have imagined. After wrapping up that story, I gave students more voice in the process of choosing books, finally willing to give up some control.


At the risk of sounding like Amy Squirrel from the movie Bad Teacher, I feel as though my students that year taught me as much, if not more, than I taught them. I learned how important it is to listen to students, and that readers of all backgrounds sometimes just want to escape into fantasy. I discovered that the right book for a teenage girl who wears a hijab just might be Twilight. I had to accept that I don’t always know what book might be best for a reader, but I learned to provide diverse options and then take a step back, allowing them to make the choice.


I place Jacob’s New Dress back on the display case, where it belongs with the other new books, waiting for the right kid to come along and check it out — whoever that may be. Out of the corner of my eye I spot Circus Mirandus, that gem of a magical book that was my favorite middle grade novel of 2015. I know that I’m making the right choice as I think back to author Cassie Beasley’s wise Nerdy Book Club post when she summed up the perfect answer to that often asked question, “Who is a book for?” A book is for anyone who wants to read it.

Kirsten LeClerc is a teacher-librarian in Asheville, NC.  She is on Twitter @kirleclerc and blogs occasionally at http://bookswithcharacter.blogspot.com.