Missing Stories by Emily Visness
I’ve been a book collector for many years. My collecting began because I have two children of my own and I wanted them to be surrounded by books in our home since birth. My obsession with books for kids of all ages enabled me to begin this school year, in my move from special education inclusion teacher to 8th grade ELA teacher, with a large classroom library. My collection includes picture books, fables, fairy tales in all their forms, poetry, Middle Grade books, YA books, graphic novels, and nonfiction books. I enjoy talking with my students and other educators about the books that are on my shelves; however, I’m spending some time over winter break evaluating not which books are on my shelves, but by asking the question – Which stories are missing?
Diverse stories were important to me, at first, because I wanted my own children to learn about and build empathy for people who look and live differently from us. Now that I have my own classroom in a diverse, Title 1 middle school, those diverse books I’ve purchased over the years have become essential for different reasons. My students deserve to see themselves in stories, and I believe it’s my job to make sure that happens. I purchase books for my classroom library frequently, and I’ve had some generous donors (friends, parents of students, colleagues) who have helped to fill the shelves. It’s important to me to make sure I include the stories of as many of my students as I can, and although I’m proud of the progress I’ve made in adding books to my shelves, I am always thinking of what is still missing. Whose story is not represented on my shelves? Who only has a single story that is being told? What perspectives are missing? These questions drive my book purchases, guide my professional development reading, and determine who I follow on social media to gain more knowledge about books and authors that will benefit my students.
Diversity alone, however, isn’t enough. I make a point to buy current, modern books that feature marginalized characters and are Own Voices – stories written by authors who are also in the groups they are writing about. If a book contains poor representation of a character in a marginalized group – perpetuating negative stereotypes, beliefs, or attitudes – I want to be informed so I do not include those books on my shelves. This takes some research online into authors and titles as they are released, it takes following blogs that report on the good and the bad representation of certain groups of people in children’s literature, and it takes actually speaking up publicly to call out bad representation when it has gone unnoticed. I share good books with my students, but I also share information with them on books that have either been called out or pulled from publishing for being racist or for perpetuating negative stereotypes. My students are riveted when we have these frank conversations about books, and I hope to empower them to recognize the difference between good and bad representation when they read, even among groups to which they do not belong. In addition to speaking up to my students about these issues, I must also speak up publicly when I encounter bad representation in my own reading. The responsibility of doing this presented itself when I recently read Robin Benway’s beautiful book Far From the Tree, the National Book Award winner in YA. The story is excellent and the writing superb, but as I read I came across a commonly used racist phrase that has roots in white settlement and the stealing of land from Indigenous Peoples – “circle the wagons.” Rather than ignoring this micro-aggressive phrase, I contacted Ms. Benway and her publisher, as well as Dr. Debbie Reese, who writes the blog American Indians in Children’s Literature, via Twitter to politely inform the author of the phrase’s racist origins and ask that it be removed. Ms. Benway responded very graciously and after contacting her publisher she informed me that the phrase will not be included in future publications of the book! Dr. Reese included the Twitter exchange on her blog, and added Benway’s Far From the Tree to her list of books in which good changes have been made. In my copy of the book, I wrote a note about this incident to explain the racism behind the phrase so that any of my students who read the book will learn and hopefully be more aware of similar phrases in their future reading. The only way children’s publishing will get better is if all of us – readers, teachers, authors, parents – make a focused effort to not only purchase and promote diverse books with good representation, but to also be willing to call out the bad when we see it. The stories we put in the hands of children need to not only be relevant to their lives, but as a teacher I must constantly ask questions when adding books to my classroom library. Is the representation in this book good? How do I know? How can I educate myself further?
I am very excited for many of the diverse books that will be released in 2018. My wish list and TBR list are full of titles that I cannot wait to share with my students. I’ve learned from them, this year, what they are looking for and the books that have the highest circulation in my classroom library are the YA and MG titles that fall in the realistic fiction genre. My 8th graders want real, relevant stories that are reflective of the lives they live. My default thinking is, as always, to analyze which stories are missing from my shelves so that I can make plans to purchase books that fill those spaces for my students. I gathered up the dust jackets for the most frequently checked out books in my classroom and I’ve learned so much about what my students want and need not by which books I have yet to add to our classroom library, but by which books are missing because my students continually check them out. There are still so many stories waiting to be told, and so many stories I need to add to my shelves. I wish I could just buy them all, right now! The quest to make sure all my students find themselves in the pages of a book is never-ending, and sharing these books with my students is my favorite part of being a teacher.
This year I’ve learned that the most important missing stories are not the ones I have yet to purchase, or the ones that are yet to be written. The missing stories that are important in my classroom are the ones that are missing because they are in the hands of my students – and the stories in which students see themselves are the most important stories of all.
Emily is an 8th grade ELA teacher at a Title 1 middle school who actively works to put relevant books into her students’ hands, a mom who is raising passionate readers, a believer in the importance of diverse literature for young people, a lover of banned or challenged books, and an advocate for all students’ right to read. She writes about her experiences and opinions on reading and books on her blog The Bookish Advocate (thebookishadvocate.wordpress.com). You can also find her on Facebook (The Bookish Advocate), Twitter (@bookishadvocate), and Instagram (TheBookishAdvocate).