I believe in the power of stories.
Stories can unite us, inspire us, and help us grow. I’m sure we’ve all seen examples of this in our own classrooms. Maybe it was a book that captured the heart of a troubled student. Perhaps a personal testimony from someone who’s lived in a different place or time. These experiences are instrumental to the growth and development of our learners. However, for a story to create positive change, it must first be heard.
As teachers, we have a responsibility to educate our students on difficult subjects, and create a space where voices too often ignored have the power to speak. A big part of this means diversifying our literature. It’s all too easy to get caught up in circular patterns of reading. As individuals, we run the risk of consuming only stories which feature characters who look like us and share our experiences. As teachers and students, we’re in danger of sticking to books that have been deemed, “Not too controversial” and “Perfectly in-line with the status quo”. Neither of these paths are conducive to the betterment of our students.
I know I’ve written before on the value of diverse reading, but given recent events, I believe the subject deserves revisiting. Here are just a few voices you should consider adding to your classroom bookshelf.
New Kid by Jerry Craft
Reading Level: 3rd – 7th
12-year-old Jordan Banks loves drawing cartoons and wants nothing more than to perfect his talent at art school. Unfortunately, his parents have chosen to send him to the prestigious Riverdale Academy Day (RAD) School, where Jordan is one of the few students of color. As Jordan navigates his new surroundings and forms friendships with other kids, he begins to understand how even well-meaning adults can make school difficult for minority students. Winner of both a Newbery Medal and a Coretta Scott King Award, New Kid is an excellent book for exploring themes of identity, microaggression, and cross-racial friendships. Readers both young and old are sure to resonate with Jordan’s journey!
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
Reading Level: 6th – 8th
Another Newbery Medal winner, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry tells the story of Cassie Logan, an independent young girl living in Mississippi during the Great Depression. Though nurtured and guided by a loving family, Cassie soon learns that her family’s land grants them all a security many African Americans don’t experience. Cassie’s story does more than highlight racial injustice in the old south. It also examines how public systems (like education and housing) have often failed African Americans. Ultimately, this coming-of-age novel can teach students how the injustice of the past can still haunt our present.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Reading Level: 7th – 12th
Arguably the most pertinent book on this list, The Hate U Give is a novel about agency, racial identity, and the power of protests. The book is narrated by 16-year-old Starr Carter, an African American girl who lives in the mostly poor black neighborhood of Garden Heights. When Starr witness a white police officer shoot and kill her childhood friend, she suddenly finds herself at the center of a nationwide argument over race and justice. The novel has garnered much attention for its harsh language and stark depictions of violence. Nevertheless, it serves as a priceless resource for young readers. We should not run from controversy, and The Hate U Give is a powerful story that needs to be known.
Ironheart by Eve Ewing
Reading level: 6th – 12th
We should never underestimate the importance of superheroes. The champions who soar through the pages of comic books are more then characters, they are ideals. They remind readers that heroism comes from the heart, and that everyone has the potential to be a powerful force for good. Riri Williams, aka Ironheart, is just one of the many new superheroes taking comics by storm. Initially inspired by Iron Man, Riri has since stepped out from Tony Stark’s shadow and forged her own identity in the Marvel universe.
Readers should also take a moment to check out other heroes of color such as Miles Morales, Black Lightning, and Sojourner Mullein!
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Reading Level: 9th – 12th
Few autobiographies are as stirring or as beautiful as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by writer and poet Maya Angelou. Beginning with her early childhood in the rural Stamps, Arkansas, Angelou recounts her experiences with racism, family, and discovering her love of literature. Her stories range from the time her grandmother confronted a racist dentist, to a high school graduation which highlights the lack of opportunity for African American students. Yet, despite the difficult subject matter, Angelou weaves a powerful recollection of pride, growth, and personal discovery. It’s no wonder this American classic has become so treasured worldwide.