The face is the mirror of the mind,
and eyes without speaking confess the secrets of the heart.
I recently finished a book that was simultaneously the exact book I needed and the worst book for me at the time. This particular book was both a mirror into my own heart and a window on another reality. It stoked some very real emotions, almost grief, and those feelings were unresolved by the end of the book; I was undone. And I was surprised. It was like one of those action movie death scenes; you don’t realize how bad the wound is until you look at it.
And it left me feeling that helping kids see themselves in books is kind of an awesome responsibility. After all, it’s a dangerous thing to give a child a book that could change his life.
…it’s a dangerous thing to give a child a book that could change his life.
The notion of “windows and mirrors” was originated by Rudine Sims Bishop as a way to describe how diverse readers could use literature and books “as a means of self-affirmation”. Though originally used to promote multicultural diversity in books, the concept has since expanded to include other forms of diverse texts, including those addressing gender/identity diversity. Simply put, students should be able to see themselves (mirrors) and learn about others (windows) in the content to which they are exposed. As the We Need Diverse Books and #ownvoices movements continue to grow, we, as teachers and librarians, are called upon to provide books to our students so they can see themselves looking back through the pages. Or to give them books that open windows onto other lives, other perspectives, other worlds.
Enter Simon. As in, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, the story of a closeted gay teen who finds him being blackmailed by a classmate who discovers Simon’s secret emails with an unknown student at his school. It’s a light-hearted and moving story about love, acceptance, and being true to yourself. As the social media buzz around the movie release of Love, Simon started to hit fever pitch in March, I was getting tons of requests for the book, all from 8th grade girls. I’d read the book when it came out and, at the time, didn’t see an audience for it among the readers at my school. But, as a dutiful librarian, I told them I’d reconsider it.
Now, enter Noah. Noah (not his real name) approached me one day and asked if we had Simon in the library. And just as I’m about ready to go into my standard speech about Simon, I looked at him. No, I saw him. Something in his expression, in the shy, almost pleading way in which this normally outgoing child looked, told me that he was asking me a very different question than the one he uttered. I gently explained to Noah that I didn’t have it but that I was thinking about it.
“Will you let me know when you get it?”
When. Not if.
These are the moments, aren’t they? The rare moments when a child trusts you enough to show you a little bit of his soul and you know you were chosen for just this.
True to my word, I re-read Simon, and I was struck by how well-adjusted Simon was and by how strong his support systems were. I know a little bit about Noah and his family from previous encounters and suddenly I’m afraid. I’m afraid because, if Noah is looking for something out of this book that he needs in his own life, he might end up very disappointed. I was so worried that this book would open a window onto something he might not be able to have. What do you do when the books that you count on to make you whole end up hurting you instead?
I needed some advice. So, I reached out to my colleague, Julie Stivers, an amazing middle school librarian who is gifted at connecting diverse readers with equally diverse books. I confessed that I was deeply afraid that I might really screw this up and didn’t know what I should do. She reminded me that it’s okay when it feels personal. After all, our students are choosing to trust us; that’s a huge responsibility and not something to be taken lightly.
What do you do when the books that you count on to make you whole end up hurting you instead?
When we build school and classroom libraries, we look inside the books to see if they belong. But maybe we’re doing it wrong. Maybe we need to look inside the readers to see what books they need. It’s so scary, though, to know that books can hurt as much as they can heal. We’ve all said to a child, “I know just the book you need…”; but, what if we’re wrong about that? What if it isn’t the book they need?
After talking with Julie, I realized that I don’t get to decide that. I don’t get to decide if a book is what a child needs and I certainly don’t get to decide how they feel about it. I don’t get to decide for Noah. Or Jazmin. Or Deja. Or Oscar. All I get to do is hold up the mirror or open the blinds. Which, when you think about it, is kind of an amazing gift.
So, what do you do, then, if a book that is supposed to heal ends up hurting instead? What could we do for kids when this happens? I think I’d tell them to do the only thing you can: keep reading.
Keep reading until the pictures become clearer.
Keep reading until the fog lifts.
Keep reading until the world makes sense.
Keep reading until…
it doesn’t hurt.