Last week I returned from four intense days of learning at the NCTE Annual Convention in Boston, MA. One of the many perks of attending was the amount of free books that I received for my classroom library. I brought back over 70 books for my students! In talking with colleagues, I decided that one of the quickest ways to get the books into the hands of the students was to do a book pass, or as I like to call it “Speed Dating with Books”. When I was sharing this idea with my husband, he asked me how I’m going to make sure these books are appropriate for all of my students. That’s an impossible task. There is no way to make sure all books are appropriate for all readers. However, that doesn’t mean that I should prevent my students from reading some of the books in this new collection for the classroom library.
Being that this is my first year teaching 7th graders, I am finding that this is a pivotal year for them as readers. I have some readers who are devouring Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell, Juliet Immortal by Stacey Jay, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green and Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. I also have a group of readers who can’t get enough of Bigger Than a Breadbox by Laurel Snyder, Rump by Liesl Shurtliff and The False Prince by Jennifer Nielsen. The students who are reading books in the first category came to me reading those books. If I were to “censor” their book selections or make recommendations avoiding books that have young adult content including vulgar language, abuse or sexually active teens they would ignore my suggestions and read them anyway.
Making assumptions about where students have been and lives they have lived, even at the age of twelve, can be difficult. It saddens me to think about some of the things my students have witnessed and experienced at such a young age. I know that many of their peers (or even teachers) couldn’t even fathom going through such experiences. Therefore, many students feel alone in the world believing that no one could possible understand what they are going through. Reading books with similar experiences can help student find a place in this world. These books might mean that there is actually someone else out there struggling or overcoming similar issues as them.
As for students who have not experienced any of the abuse, depression or sexually related content in young adult novels, these books can still provide a sense of understanding and compassion. I remember some of the books that I read when I was in middle school, and looking back I realize how much of the explicit content I truly did not understand. However, I still feel that I was able to have an emotional connection with many of the characters. I learned compassion and my eyes were opened to an entire world that I didn’t know existed. I truly believe that these books have made me a better person today because they first taught me how to be compassionate and empathetic.
As a teacher, this doesn’t mean I will hand any book to just any student without thoughtful conversations about the content. The majority of the books I received at NCTE I have not yet read. However, many of my friends that also teach middle school have read them. I will look at their reviews on Goodreads before determining how to handle a book within my classroom. I have some books that I keep behind my desk, and there are certain students that know they can check those books out at any time. I determine who those students are based on the books they have already shared and discussed with me. However, there are some books that I will directly recommend to a particular student knowing that their peers respect them as a reader. Once that student finishes the book, the book popularity will spread like wildfire. As much as I like to think of myself as a person that students will feel comfortable talking to about difficult content in books, I know that isn’t a realistic expectation. Knowing that many peers in the classroom are reading and sharing the same book opens the door for supportive conversations between peers about difficult topics.
Always remember that parent preference about book content is always first priority. If a parent does not agree with a book that I have recommended or that their child has checked out from my classroom library, I always respect that parent’s choice. This has only ever happened one time to me, but I know it probably won’t be the last time. In that situation I listened to the parent’s concerns and made sure that any book I recommended in the future fit the parent’s expectations for their student as reader.
Students want to read about stories that they can connect to as readers. One student said to me, “I don’t like reading books with characters younger than me.” I think this statement is true for the majority of middle school readers. If we want to help inspire our students as readers, we need to meet them where they are, and be prepared for them to want to read books about drinking, drugs, rape, sex and relationships. These books can help open the doors to conversations and action involving compassion, empathy and understanding.
I’ll leave you with some great thoughts about Jackson Pearce’s perspective of the “F-Bomb” in books.