Sat 6 Aug 2011
But today, I’m interviewing a teacher with a commitment to providing inclusive books to her students.
Meet Abigail Swetz, a mother, teacher, dog owner and (lesbian) wife who lives in Madison, Wisconsin.
During her first year teaching, Abigail taught anti-bullying lessons, integrated lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) books into her curriculum and helped found the Indian Mound Middle School Gay Straight Alliance (GSA).
The GSA raised awareness about anti-LGBTQ bullying by participating in the Day of Silence, when students across the nation take a voluntary vow of silence for a day to commemorate and honor all those throughout history who have been silenced by hatred and discrimination. Students could choose to wear a black ribbon and be silent, wear a rainbow ribbon in support, or not participate at all. Between students and staff, the GSA handed out more than 400 ribbons.
Today, Abby is an eighth-grade reading/language arts/social studies teacher at Georgia O’Keeffe Middle School in Madison.
And, I’m thrilled to have her visit Read, Write, Repeat and share her views on building an inclusive classroom or school library.
Why is it important for teachers and librarians to make sure their collections are as diverse and inclusive as possible?
I think Bonnie Augusta, who used to be the LGBTQ Resource Teacher for the Madison Metropolitan School District, said it best. Her argument was that students must see themselves reflected in the curriculum for them to learn. For example, if a primary school teacher is teaching a unit on families and only reads books with families that have two heterosexual married parents, then that teacher is ignoring the experiences of many of his or her students.
What about students with divorced parents who share custody? Or parents who aren’t married? Or single parents? Or same-sex couple parents? When a student see him or herself reflected in the curriculum, it creates an automatic buy-in.
The, “Wow! That’s exactly how I feel!” factor is, I believe, even more important during the middle-school years, when all kids are going through identity transformations and need to know there are all kinds of people out there in the world, and the world will accept you for whomever you figure out yourself to be.
What process should a teacher or librarian interested in developing a more inclusive collection follow? What resources should they consult?
There are a great many resources out there, I am happy to report, from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center and the American Library Association. Here are two links.
These lists are a great place to start. But I would make sure that adults who are looking to suggest books to children and young adults really consider how the LGBTQ aspect of the book is being presented before they do so, especially if a young person is questioning.
Some of these books are really quite brilliant; some of them are also quite heavy. Many books with LGBTQ characters deal with their struggle, and that’s accurate and I’m thankful those books exist. I’m also thankful that other, more positive, books exist. We don’t want to mislead adolescents into thinking life is all rosey, but if every “gay” book you have in your library includes anti-gay violence, then it’s time to add some different books.
What makes a library collection inclusive? How would a teacher or librarian know they’ve succeeded?
Covering the entire LGBTQ acronym (with more than a single book for each letter). When a student comes asking you for another suggestion after having read one of the books, you know you’re on your way.
How willing are children and teens to read about characters different than themselves?
Very willing! This might sound contrary to my previous statements about students needing to see themselves in the curriculum, but this is really just the flip side of that coin. When you think about it, reading a novel or memoir is really just legal identity theft. For a few hours while you read that book, you get to become someone else! Without any of the consequences of actually living that life? How amazing! And also, how important for adolescents trying to figure themselves out.
Are there any pitfalls to watch out for?
Yes, like I said before, try to avoid being overly negative.
Here is Abigail’s list of starter books she thinks well-equipped libraries should have on hand. All are appropriate for high school, and many for middle school. The letter in parentheses corresponds to the part of the LGBTQ acronym that the book represents.
Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan (G, with a bit of T)
The adorable story of a boy meeting a boy, courting that boy, messing up and losing that boy, and then gaining that boy back again. It’s so sweet that it almost smells like bubblegum, but don’t let that fool you, there’s some deep stuff in here about trust and friendship and what it feels like to be falling in love. Levithan is an inspired author. I routinely laugh out loud when reading his books, or I can be found scrambling for a pencil, wanting to copy down some amazing turn of phrase he’s made. Best for both middle and high school. (Editor’s note: This book was also featured on my blog as a GLEE-ful read recommendation for Kurt Hummel. Full review here.)
Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger (L)
Another book with an alternative structure, Hard Love intersperses its chapters with articles from the characters’ zines. (I described these to my students as “blogs before the Internet.”) The story follows Marisol, a “rich spoiled lesbian private-school gifted-and-talented writer virgin,” and Gio, whose name is really John but he was trying to impress Marisol so he changed it to sound more foreign and interesting. Marisol expands Gio’s world; Gio provides Marisol support. And falls for her in the process. Best for both middle and high school. (This book has a sequel, but I wouldn’t recommend it.)
Hero by Perry Moore (G)
In Moore’s world, superheroes exist. They form The League, an arm of the police force designed to deal with the supervillans who also exist. A coming-of-age story, Hero follows Thom as he discovers two key facts about himself — he is gay, and he has superpowers. Neither of which would make his father too happy, if he were to find out about them that is. Action-packed, and appropriate for both middle and high school.
Luna by Julie Anne Peters (T)
Luna tells the story of a transgender teen through the eyes of sister Regan. Liam is a senior, seemingly on his way to the Ivy League with fame and fortune to follow. But all he wants is to be Luna, the woman he truly is at heart. Regan has seen Liam dress as a woman for years in the privacy of their shared basement. This is the year Luna decides to climb the stairs for the rest of the world to see. Sad and yet hopeful, this book is appropriate for both middle and high schools.
So Hard to Say by Alex Sanchez (Q, with a bit of G)
Frederick is the new kid in eighth grade. He’s also the short kid and the kid with asthma … and he definitely doesn’t want to add “the gay kid” to that list. But what if it’s true? As his relationships with Xio, his best friend who wants to be his girlfriend, Victor, the school’s gorgeous soccer star, and Iggy, whose brother even calls him the F-word, all develop, they lead Frederick down a questioning road. Will he ever figure himself out? Or let himself admit it? Best for middle school or an easy (and sweet) high school read.
The Misfits by James Howe (G)
The story of a lovable group of seventh-grade outcasts — the fat kid, the smart girl, the gay boy and the troublemaker — who try to make their school a better place by running for student council on the “No Name Calling Ticket.” This book was actually the inspiration for Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) No Name Calling Week, a nationwide event that promotes acceptance and builds anti-bullying allies at the beginning of the school year. Best for middle school.
Totally Joe by James Howe (G)
Joe is “the gay boy” from The Misfits, and this is the sequel to the other book, picking the story up after the group loses the election but succeeds in creating a No Name Calling campaign in their school with the help of staff. It chronicles Joe’s first (secret) relationship and his journey towards coming out. Best for middle school.
Wide Awake by David Levithan (G, with a bit of L)
The time is the very near future. America has just elected her first gay Jewish president. Plausible, right? Actually, the way Levithan writes it, seems so. No summary could do this story justice, so I’ll just say that if you need to restore your faith in humanity and people power, this is a truly brilliant read. Best only for high school.
Will Grayson, Will Grayson by David Levithan and John Green (G)
Each chapter of this book switches back and forth between two characters, both of who are named Will Grayson. Sound confusing? It’s not. The two writers have such skill and the two characters have such voice that the story of these two Wills who meet by happenstance unfolds seamlessly. The two young men share a friendship with Tiny, a very large gay high school actor/football player, who, in one fell swoop, shatters all gay stereotypes. Hilarious, and best for high school.
Two books I’d add to the list — with Abigail’s blessing — are:
Absolutely, Positively Not by David LaRochelle (Q and G)
Steven, 16, likes square dancing, his male health teacher and keeping International Male catalogs under his bed. But he is determined that he is absolutely, positively, not gay. To prove this, he tries to buy a Playboy magazine, tries mingling with the meathead jocks and has a series of disastrous dates with girls in his school. When Steven finally outs himself to his best friend, Rachel tells her entire family and urges him to form a gay-straight alliance. This book won the Sid Fleischman Humor Award the year it was published. Best for high school.
Geography Club by Brent Hartinger (G, with a little bit of L)
Russel Middlebrook is a sophomore at Goodkind High School. He has a secret crush on Kevin Land and soon discovers Kevin is also gay. The boys become friends and set up the “Geography Club” with three other gay students, one of whom is Russel’s closest friend, Min. Eventually, however, peer pressure and insecurity take their toll. Russel’s relationship with Kevin ends, but the “Geography Club” becomes the “Goodkind High School Gay-Straight-Bisexual Alliance,” and the protagonist gains new insight into himself and his place in the world. Best for high school.
I hope this list gets you started reading and exploring. And, if you’re looking for more resources on LGBTQ literaure, I’d recommend:
• Lee Wind’s blog I’m Here. I’m Queer. What the Hell Do I Read?
• This forum, blog and fansite: Gay YA: GLBT Characters and Pairings in YA Fiction.