Share Bravely by Donna Gephart
When our son, Andrew, was about eleven, I found a book he was going to read: Jumper by Steven Gould. I read the first couple pages.
The opening scene was about a boy being abused by his father – his father with a very large buckle on the belt that was in his fist. I slammed the book closed. “You can’t read this,” I told Andrew.
“But it looks really good,” he said.
“You’re not ready for this.”
That conversation took place a dozen years ago.
Truth be told, I wasn’t ready for our son to read that book yet. He was more than ready. That’s why he chose it. That’s why he read it despite my best intentions of shielding him from the pain of this world.
Looking back to my youth, the only way I learned about challenging things in our world was through the fictional honesty of books. My mom hid life’s challenges from me, but books were there. They never flinched. Never let me down.
There was Go Ask Alice, which let me know what taking drugs felt like and that they weren’t for me.
Eric by Doris Lund showed me a young person dealing with cancer with grace. I gobbled the thick book up in one, tear-filled day. So, when I faced the horrid disease in my 30s, I had a roadmap to help me traverse the difficult path.
Books about the holocaust and slavery that I read when I was young gave me a foundation of understanding man’s inhumanity to man and taught me that we must speak up when people are singled out and targeted.
If these books were kept from me, like I tried to keep Jumper from our son, I’d be a lesser human, a less useful citizen of the world, a less empathetic person. Less.
Today, we sometimes keep books with difficult or challenging content from kids.
Silent censorship is often the culprit.
And that silent censorship begins with the author – the conversation a writer has with herself when an idea first captures her imagination.
For example, when I saw a documentary, I Am a Girl, about a transgender girl, who had the same hopes and dreams as every girl but tremendous struggles to bear, I was moved to write about it. But that voice barged into my head. You can’t write about this. People will complain. It will offend someone.
I was afraid to write this book.
After researching and learning about the discrimination, alienation and violence transgender people face every day, the horrific suicide attempt rate of young transgender people, I knew I had to write this book. In fact, I dedicated it to Leelah Alcorn, a trans teen who felt so isolated and unsupported she wrote a suicide note begging for things to change, for people to be more accepting, then threw herself onto the highway into the path of an oncoming truck.
I felt compelled to write this book to shine a light into the darkness of fear and prejudice. To give a voice to the voiceless. To allow readers to meet and care about people who might be different from them in some ways, but alike in the deep, human ways that matter. I felt compelled to write this book even though I was scared and worried about how people would respond.
“Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.” – Ambrose Redmoon
It’s difficult now. It’s ugly out there. The pressure is on.
During ALA this year in Orlando, I took a day off to go to Harry Potter World. In one of the interminable lines, I overheard two educators behind me talking about how their principal won’t support books that are challenged anymore, so the school’s librarian intentionally chooses books for the school’s reading list she thinks won’t ruffle feathers, books a parent couldn’t possibly complain about.
Another librarian in Mississippi told me about how she put up a Pride display in the teen section of the public library, only to have an angry mother of an eight-year-old insist the display be taken down so it couldn’t harm her child . . . even though the display was across the library from the children’s section.
The display was taken down. Immediately. No process or procedure.
The determined librarian found another way to promote those books in a larger offering of inclusive titles.
I can’t imagine what you’re up against.
But I know you’re a voice for the voiceless. You have the power to give young people the tools that will help them navigate a sometimes difficult and challenging world for the rest of their lives. You have the power to open minds and hearts to make this world a more accepting, inclusive place.
You might not wear capes, but you are the true superheroes to the young people you serve.
What books will you choose to hand to those young people?
What books will you put on display?
What books will you select for book clubs, school lists, state lists and awards?
I’ve read so many beautiful books that can crack open hearts and fill them with a shared understanding: Girls Like Us by Gail Giles, Small as an Elephant by Jennifer Richard Jacobson, To Be a Slave by Julius Lester, Paper Hearts by Meg Wiviott, Fly Away Home by Eve Bunting and Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall.
Books like these matter to people in ways we can’t always imagine.
This is one of the emails I received after Lily and Dunkin came out:
My son is BOTH bipolar and transgender and in 6th grade.
Thank you more than I can say for writing a book that might help people understand or be more understanding of him.
Being brave doesn’t mean we’re not afraid. It means we are afraid, but choose to do what feels right anyway.
I promise to keep writing bravely.
If you promise to keep sharing books bravely.
Together, we’ll make this world a kinder, gentler, more inclusive place.
Donna Gephart is the author of five novels for young people, including her latest, Lily and Dunkin, about a transgender girl who works hard to save a beloved tree and a boy with bipolar disorder, who tries desperately to fit in with the guys on the basketball team at a new school, How to Survive Middle School and Death by Toilet Paper – a humorous, heartfelt novel about poverty, grief and the good kind of toilet paper. For free reading guides, information about school and Skype visits and more, visit http://www.donnagephart.com.