I believe strongly that books have the possibilities to be windows and mirrors for my students. By reading books, we see through the windows into other lives. We can develop empathy because we experience hardship as our characters. The scenes that vividly come when I recall them are the books that I have sobbed over. Through books I have experienced heartache that I have never had to know in my own life, but understand a bit more through the safety of pages that I turn. These stories have made me a better person because of all of the characters I have encountered.
Books can also be mirrors. Through the pages of a book, you can see you are not alone, not the only one going through something hard. This is critical to me. I clearly remember childhood, and mine was a happy one. But when something tough would happen to me, I’m not the kind of kid who would want to talk about it. I pull everything inward. I would stew on topics for the longest time, beating myself up inside, thinking I was the only one dealing with it. Sometimes a book would find me and show that I wasn’t alone. More often, however, I was left with my thoughts. For this reason alone, I want students to find themselves in books.
This is why I wish Alex Gino’s George was in every classroom. George was written for 8-12 year old kids, but I would place my bets that it won’t be in all of those classrooms. See George was born a boy, but knows that she is a girl. Writing about sexual identity for this age group would be tough, yet Gino does it well. I’ve talked to teachers who have told me that they don’t want to deal with this topic. That no student in their class needs to read about a child dealing with the concept of sexual identity. I would like to argue that we all need to read this book. Whether George is a window to let students look into the world of a child dealing with sexual identity, or a mirror into their own struggle, it’s an important book. As a teacher, I care about my students. I want them to be successful. And the percentage of transgender teens that attempt suicide is staggering. (40-50%, in case you are curious.) We need more books like George.
So yes, mirrors are important. But something I have been talking to my friends about lately also runs in the opposite direction. There are times we need mirrors, and I think all books can be windows, but sometimes we need to escape. Some of my students this year have had hard lives. Poverty, divorce, foster homes, illness, and loss of a parent are just some of the things these ten year olds are dealing with. It is too much.
One of my students came into my room this week and asked me to help him find a book. My homeroom students were all working, so I began roaming the perimeter of the classroom where our shelves line the walls. I asked him what he was looking for. His big eyes found mind and he said, “I need to laugh.”
Knowing him, knowing his story, my own eyes welled up. He does need to laugh. I steered him over to the memoirs and pulled out Jon Scieszka’s Knucklehead. Slipping my arm around his shoulder I said, “How do you feel about books that devote a whole chapter to the concept of a sword fight when multiple brothers are peeing.” He began to grin and grabbed the book from me, heading to check it out.
Life is hard. I wish I could make my students’ lives easier, but I cannot. There are times that I break down when I get home, thinking of everything that my students are going through, and wondering how I can possibly help. I can’t fix much, but I can buy them books. I can talk about the books and try to match the right one to the right reader. I can have a varied library so they can find those books that can teach them empathy, let them understand what their friends are going through, or let them see themselves. Let them understand that they are not alone. But I also want the books that allow them to laugh. Allow them to escape their ever day life and just have fun. Books can do that too.
Do you have any favorite escape books? Ones that are silly, fun, or make you laugh out loud? If so, please share. This is a year I am going to need as many of those as possible. Thanks!