Books Unite Us

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September 30, 2021 by Dr. Robbie Barber

I am extremely proud of my friends, colleagues, and students who have bounded into this annual #BannedBooksWeek with joy. And I have to say upfront that I want to thank the committee for choosing a powerful slogan for 2021: Books Unite Us, Censorship Divides Us.

This year, we went past the caution tape, covered books, and hidden books to explore how books bring us together. One of my science teachers heard the discussion and added to it. The variety of people adding their thoughts was amazing. The Reading Bowl club/team built the Banned Books Tree. Each branch ends with a book that has been banned somewhere. It also contains the reason you might want to read the book or how it unites us. Each falling leaf tells the story of why it was banned.

To add to the “Books Unite Us” part of this week, the Reading Bowl kids grabbed cards and let others know why they did (or did not) like a book. I told them to put them all up, even the negative ones. This was for everyone to share. Hopefully others would do this too.

Throughout this process, I have been remembering two stories about reading; one as a parent and one as a middle school librarian.

When my son was in second grade, the book Sea of Monsters had come out. His two older sisters had read The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan and begged me to buy the second book the day it came out. I sat down to read both books. My son watched the whole thing and picked up the book at some point. He said he wanted to read it when I was done. I hesitated. Then I said, “no.” My children have rarely heard anything negative when it comes to a book. This threw all of them for a loop. I explained that the book had a wonderful version of the Greek mythology, but that he would get so much more if he waited until he knew about the myths from other sources. The fiction book would be richer in content. It never occurred to me to demand that every child wait until they knew about Greek mythology. I was parenting my child. I knew my child. The result was that in the next two weeks, my son read all of the 292.13 section in the school library, then the public library. He proved he knew the stories of Greek mythology and demanded the books. He got them. Two and a half years later, he read the Robert Fagles’ version of the Odyssey, cover to cover. (Side note: my son got to shake hands with his hero, Rick Riordan, when he came to The Little Shop of Stories at the release of the fourth book.)

As a middle school librarian, I sometimes made mistakes. (I still do as a high school librarian.) I suggested a book to a very bright, interested sixth grader. In the first chapter of the book, the female character puts on thong panties. It is mentioned because it’s describing how much the entire world has changed for the character to set up the story. The next morning, the young lady came in and said this wasn’t good a book because of that line and her mother agreed. I immediately agreed and said we would find a better book together. The young lady looked worried. Was I going to throw away the book? No, I told her. The book didn’t fit her, but there were other students, older, who might enjoy that adventure. Not all books fit all people. She was actually happy about that and we found a different book.

Books have an ability to speak to each of us individually. Yet, we’re connected by sharing the stories and characters lives. I share books with friends. Books can help students develop empathy (Chiaet, 2013). We encourage others to read our favorites. We interpret, absorb, argue, experience, and develop a feeling for a book. Then, we share our love of a book.

My amazing colleagues in several organizations, including Nan Brown and Amanda Lee of GLMA, developed a website called Freedom to Read GA. They offer information about reading and reading choices, promotional materials, and opportunities for students to create videos and essays. Authors, public librarians and others have recorded videos which will be available in October 2021. I encourage you to explore the site: https://bit.ly/FreedomToReadGA. I love this line in the material: “Through this campaign we hope to increase awareness of the importance of students’ access to a wide variety of materials, restricted only by their own family’s guidance.”

Reference:

Chiaet, J. (2013). Novel finding: Reading literary fiction improves empathy. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/novel-finding-reading-literary-fiction-improves-empathy/

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