It’s Not About Us by Donalyn Miller
Two weekends ago, I volunteered at the North Texas Teen Book Festival, a two-day event in Irving, Texas. I travel to lots of literacy and literature conferences, but it’s a rare treat to attend such a fantastic conference without leaving home. The first day of the festival is an Educator Day for teachers and librarians, and the second day brings in thousands of kids from around our region. Participants attend panels, buy books and swag, get their books signed, take photos, and brush elbows with the luminaries of young adult and children’s literature.
I moderated four panels and attended sessions the rest of the time. Don, Sarah, and Sarah’s boyfriend, Carter, went with me on Saturday. When we walked into the building, the sight took my breath away. Imagine ten thousand kids sporting t-shirts with slogans like “Boys in Books Are Better” and “Home Is Where the Tardis Is.” Bags and backpacks crammed full of books. Signing lines wrapped around the mezzanine and out the door. A group of kids from the same school wore kitten-ear headbands, so they could find each other in a sea of other kids. Wedged against a wall, we overheard two security guards talking about the crowd, “Wow! When I heard we were working a book conference, I expected a couple hundred people, tops. Look at this! I thought kids don’t read.”
Kids read, buddy. Let me call a group over to drop you some book talks.
For many kids, it was their first time meeting authors or attending a conference. During the panels, I was impressed by the thought-provoking, honest questions young readers asked their favorite authors—questions about specific books they loved, questions about writing, and questions about the hard topics our kids face every day including racism, prejudice, violence, loss, and life-threatening illness. Listening to kids open their hearts to a roomful of strangers was beautiful and brave.
Kids will humble you. We need to be humbled, sometimes.
In the afternoon, Don and I attended a panel on mental health issues with young adult authors Jeff Zentner, Jennifer Niven, Adam Silvera, John Corey Whaley, Justine Larbalestier, and Sonya Sones. During the question and answer session, young people stood up and shared their personal experiences with PTSD, depression, compulsion, and death. Some had adults who helped them and some didn’t. Some had access to counseling and health services and some didn’t. Some just needed to share their experiences, so they could heal. So much heartfelt emotion was overwhelming, and many of us wept in our seats.
No matter their different questions or experiences, you know what every kid in that line had in common? All of them had at least one book that spoke to them when they needed it.
Don and I felt the enormous ballroom shrink to something intimate and special—the six authors on stage and that line of kids at the mike. Even the moderator disappeared into the background. In that time and place, all that mattered were those kids and the people who wrote stories just for them.
A girl on crutches came early for the final session, and sat behind us. It was her birthday. She had navigated the convention center on crutches all day, and she was exhausted, but she wanted to hear Maggie Stiefvater, her favorite author. We chatted over our shared love for The Raven Cycle, and I asked her if she had read The Scorpio Races, my personal favorite. When she said no, I encouraged her to read it soon. When I asked if she was going to try and meet Maggie at her book signing, she said, “ I can’t stand in the signing line that long on my crutches. I just wanted to see her and hear her. Next time I read one of her books, I want to be able to hear her voice.”
I have met Maggie Stiefvater several times and heard her speak at many conferences. I have read all of her books. I would have exchanged all of those experiences if I could have figured out a way for that sweet birthday girl on crutches to meet her just once.
I have taught adolescents for many years and raised two daughters. In the moments when I’m fully present and listening, here’s what the teens in my life communicate to me—they want to be seen, they want to be heard, they want to be valued as human beings, they want to be loved and respected. They want to feel safe. They want adults to recognize that their thoughts and feelings matter. They are sick of hearing, “When you’re an adult…”
Childhood and adolescence are life-stages, not just one long onramp to adulthood. When we tell young people the love they feel is “puppy love,” the pain they feel “will pass,” that the disappointment, anger, and fear they feel are not fully-formed because “they’re just kids,” or too intense because “they’re dramatic teenagers,” we diminish young people and their lived experiences.
The most important part of our connection to the children’s and young adult literature world lies in helping kids find their own stories. It’s not about us. It’s about them. We are time travelers to our own adolescence at best, eavesdroppers most times, and censors in our worst moments. Children’s and young adult literature doesn’t exist for the benefit of adults. It doesn’t exist so that we can become arbiters of what is good and what isn’t. It doesn’t exist so we can turn books into study guides and worksheets. It sure as **** doesn’t exist so we can corrupt and monetize books with leveling systems, curriculum kits, and AR tests.
Raising and teaching children is hard. We never have all of the answers and the most self-aware adults seek help where they can find it. Children’s and young adult literature is one more way that we can help our kids navigate the world and find their place in it. Our job? Finding books and removing every obstacle possible to get those books into kids’ hands. There are talented, caring, committed artists writing stories meant specifically for our young people. Open the gates and stand back.
This weekend, I spoke to English and language arts teachers in an Indiana school district. After my final session, the host gave away 40 of the books I book talked throughout the day. Five teachers won baskets of books. After the workshop, I stood around answering questions and talking to folks. The district had few librarians, but one high school librarian came up to talk. She had won a basket and we talked about several of the books in it. When I came across History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera, I hesitated. This was Indiana, a state with recent political discrimination against the LGBTQ community. I worried for a moment that she might not put a book in her library about a romantic relationship between boys. I told her how beautiful and well-written the book was and she smiled, “I know exactly the students I need to pass this to first because I have some boys going through relationship dramas of their own right now!”
We laughed and discussed how important it is to get books into kids’ hands. In a time when many educators and librarians feel powerless to stop the institutionally sanctioned cruelty and exclusion many kids suffer, giving them books and talking with them about what they read may be the only act of rebellion or hope we have at our disposal. Let’s not waste it.
Donalyn Miller has taught fourth, fifth, and sixth grade English and Social Studies in Northeast Texas. She is the author of two books about encouraging students to read, The Book Whisperer (Jossey-Bass, 2009) and Reading in the Wild (Jossey-Bass, 2013). Donalyn co-hosts the monthly Twitter chat, #titletalk (with Nerdy Book Club co-founder, Colby Sharp). Donalyn launched the annual Twitter summer and holiday reading initiative, #bookaday. You can find her on Twitter at @donalynbooks or under a pile of books somewhere, happily reading.