Activism In and About Children’s Books by Ami Polonsky
In World Made of Glass, thirteen-year-old Iris’s dad is dying of AIDS. It’s 1987, and while the marginalized groups most impacted by the virus have been acutely aware of its presence for years, the general public is just starting to learn about it. As the book unfolds, Iris comes to understand that the government, pharmaceutical companies, and many medical establishments have largely ignored HIV and AIDS because gay men, like Iris’s dad, are among those most impacted by the virus. Iris learns that her dad’s suffering and death are the direct result of discrimination, and as her awareness grows, so does her anger.
While writing World Made of Glass was a challenge, as all writing is, capturing Iris’s rage was easy. I have more in common with Iris than with any character I’ve written. She has a close family member whom she adores, who is gay, who is sidelined by society and left to die. I have a close family member whom I adore, who is trans, who I work desperately to encase in figurative bubble wrap as protection against the horrifying political and cultural landscape of our country. Iris’s fury regarding the unfairness of her dad’s death led her to become an ally in the same way that my fury regarding the unfairness of the treatment of trans children led me to become their ally. Iris and I both find solace in activism, and we much prefer the feeling of red-hot anger to the feeling of sadness. In our positions as allies, Iris and I, first and foremost, feel rage.
Shortly after Iris’s parents’ divorce, but before her dad gets sick, he and Iris begin communicating through acrostic poetry. The tradition starts as a joke but evolves into a meaningful form of expression for both characters. In an early poem, Iris admits to her dad that she’s being teased at school by two girls, Randy and Tara, because he is gay. Her dad responds with an acrostic poem entitled “Advocacy.”
About Randy and Tara. You shouldn’t have to
Deal with them, but you do. Create a
Of equality, and patiently (these things take longer than they should)
Cast it over them like
A net for minnows, or a shadow of hands. You should not have to
Carry them forward, but
You have to carry them forward.
As World Made of Glass progresses and Iris allows herself to feel a fuller spectrum of emotions, her rage shapeshifts into something new. It’s still rage, but she becomes, as she puts it, “a more thoughtful kind of furious.” Like Iris, I’ve learned that, when it comes to advocacy and allyship, “thoughtful rage” is an extremely effective tool. It allows for community-centered actions that require collaboration and planning. It allows for weighing options and discussing possibilities. It allows for things to get done. And, the job of an ally is to get things done.
Unfortunately, there have been countless times throughout history when activism has been especially important—times when people in power act with calculated cruelty to marginalized groups. Iris came of age during one of times, and right now, we find ourselves in another. Across the country, people in power are working hard to silence and erase certain marginalized groups such as trans children. The attack on trans kids is multi-pronged, immoral, cruel, and nonsensical. One form is has taken is an attempt by certain state governments and local organizations to clear public schools and libraries of conversation and books about LGBTQ+ kids and families.
In many states, books about trans kids are being formally banned and soft-censored out of classrooms and public libraries. Trans children are already at heightened risk for developing mental health problems due to the overt and subtle discrimination they face. How can adults, whose job it is to protect children, deprive an at-risk population of the benefits of seeing themselves reflected in literature? How can adults actively work to harm, rather than celebrate, trans kids? Everything about these book bans is enraging. But, I can’t allow myself to only feel rage. Like Iris, I need to be a thoughtful kind of furious.
Last month, I traveled to Jacksonville, Florida along with Ellen Oh and Linda Sue Park, thanks to the We Need Diverse Books “Books Save Lives” initiative. WNDB, along with PEN America, wrote a letter to the Duval Country School Board, one of the many local organizations guilty of soft censoring books about LGBTQ kids (as well as other diverse children) out of their schools. The purpose of the letter was to request additional information about the book bans and express intense concern about them. Ellen, Linda Sue, and I attended a Duval County School Board meeting to advocate for the return of these books to classroom libraries. At the very least, whatever the outcome would be, we wanted to show the children whose identities are reflected in the banned books that there are so many adults in the country who celebrate them and are fighting for them. In the most basic sense, we spoke out in an attempt to carry the board members forward.
Once in Jacksonville, Ellen, Linda Sue and I found ourselves surrounded by a group of like-minded allies who had arranged for our visit and were fighting alongside us for marginalized children and the freedom to read. To be a part of this community was simultaneously calming and invigorating. Just like Iris feels less alone when surrounded by advocates, I felt a sense of hope when I saw, up close, how many people were with me. I was surrounded, physically and figuratively, by a community of people attempting to carry the country forward.
If I want to sound poetic and mystical, I could say that Iris’s activism is linked to my own. But, in a more practical sense, I think that I had to write the story about Iris’s allyship to give concise language to mine. Iris and I are both filled to the brim with calm rage, and we both heed her father’s words when we think of the people whose hearts and minds it’s our jobs, as allies, to change: You shouldn’t have to carry them forward, but you have to carry them forward.
Ami Polonsky is an educator, mother to two children, and author, among other things. Ami is the author of several books including World Made of Glass, Spin with Me, Threads, and Gracefully Grayson. She lives outside of Chicago with her family and can be found online at http://www.amipolonsky.com.
WORLD MADE OF GLASS
A girl channels her grief and pain into love and activism in this heartbreaking, heart-mending novel of family, friendship, and community.
Iris tries to act normal at school, going through the motions and joking around with her friends. But nothing is normal, and sometimes it feels like she’ll never laugh again. How can she, when her dad is dying of a virus that’s off-limits to talk about? When she knows that soon all she’ll have left of her kind, loving dad are memories, photos, and a binder full of the poems they used to exchange?
In a sea of rage and grief, Iris resolves to speak out against the rampant fear, misinformation, and prejudice surrounding AIDS—and find the pieces of Dad that she never knew before. Along the way, Iris might just find new sides to herself.
Award-winning author Ami Polonsky has crafted a lyrical, tender, earth-shattering novel that will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page.
Pub Date: Jan 17, 2023
Hardcover ISBN: 9 9780316462044| $16.99
E-book ISBN: 9780316462259| $9.99
Audiobook ISBN: 9781668621233