Monday, November 21, 2016

Tales for Troubling Times

I'm white, culturally Christian, straight, college educated, able-bodied, cis-gendered, and basically benefit from every single type of privilege a female can get.

I can number for you the times I've been brought out of my bubble by another person.  The Jewish friend who helped me find an apartment when I got my first teaching job.  We both noted the surprising number of Christian bookstores for a rather small town, and she commented, "It's probably a nice enough place, but I wouldn't be comfortable living here."  Why-oh.  Right.

The student who asked me, "Ms. Falconer, are you rich?"  I said no, and she smiled up at me.  "Sure you are.  You wear a different outfit every day of the week."  But that's--oh.  Right.

The student who told me, "When we were in Mexico and my family walked down the street, people knew us.  They said hi.  They respected us.  Here, when we walk down the street, people look at us like we're garbage."

The student who said, "I was a good student at home.  I used to be smart.  Then we moved here."

The long-time friend of my dad who didn't like to visit our house because he was likely to get pulled over in our neighborhood for DWB--driving while black.  Their other buddy who once got threatened to "get out of town by sunset, Jap," much to his bewilderment, as he's Hispanic.

The student who asked me, "What does 'wetback' mean?" and then cried out, "But I was BORN here! I didn't cross no river!" when I reluctantly explained to him what another child had just called him.

But for every experience I've been brought into as living witness, there are dozens more I've had as a reader. Is it as good as lived experience?  Of course not.  Is it even as good as, say, having actual personal relationships with people who are different from me?  Nope.  But it is a hell of a lot better than never exploring what the world is like from another perspective.

Books build empathy.  I've read that repeatedly, and if this were two weeks ago I'd just run with that, but in light of the recent realization of how readily people accept online conventional wisdom as Actual Truth, here are some articles backing that up:

Scientific American
The Reading Agency (UK)
Medical News Today
Psychology Today

Granted, these are all journals aimed more at the lay person than scientists in the field, but they are also reputable organizations, and they are referencing more academic studies and publications.

As I've been reading over the past year, I've been finding books I want to bring into my classroom, to put in the hands of students who, like me at their age, live in a safe, white bubble.  For so long, I've been focused on building a classroom library in which all students can find themselves--a library full of mirrors.  But what the recent election shows me is how desperately we also need the windows, the views into each other's worlds.  We cannot continue to have a nation of people growing up despising The Other. (We also need people to get better about fact checking, but that's another issue.)  Here are some of the books I am putting into my students hands in my effort to help them build empathy.

Recommended Titles

A Night Divided by Jennifer Nielsen.
A book about a wall that is built between two countries.  A wall that divides families.  A wall that separates the haves from the have-nots.  A wall that people risk their lives to cross.

A book that is not dystopia, but historical fiction.  We all remember where we were when the great tragedies of our age occurred, but I also remember where I was when I heard that the Berlin Wall was coming down.  What a celebration!

Poem supplement--yes, Robert Frost's "Mending Wall".  While it contains the line "Good fences make good neighbors," that point is immediately contradicted by the narrator.  "Something there is that doesn't love a wall."

Gaijin: American Prisoner of War by Matt Faulkner
More historical fiction that bears relevance on today's society.  This graphic novel, gorgeously illustrated in teals and sunset colors, is the story of a half-Japanese boy and his white mother as they deal with rising prejudice in San Fransisco of 1945, leading up to their forced move to the Alameda Relocation center.  I found it powerful that the book didn't even bother with the prison camp in the desert part of the story--it had already said all it needed to say about paranoia, prejudice, and fear of the other.

Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story by Ken Mochizuki
Another historical work, this picture book is one that honors the power of the individual to do good in the face of institutionalized, bureaucratic evil.  More than 90% of the Jews of the Baltic states were killed during WWII, victims of their neighbors' anti-Semitism as much as that of the Nazis.  But Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara went against direct orders and got as many Jews out of Vilnius, Lithuania as he could physically create visas for.  I once met an elderly woman who'd left Lithuania on one such a visa.  She would not have lived to old age without the strength of that one man.

Through My Eyes by Ruby Bridges with Margo Lundell 
This photo documentary/memoir is one I have used in class before.  There is nothing quite like putting specific individual, especially a child, into a maelstrom of hate to reveal the true nature of apologists and excuse-makers.  There is NOT ONE THING this child could possibly have done to deserve ANY of what she went through.  Parallels to today's climate can be built from there.

Poem Supplement--I'd never seen this one before last week, but now it's everywhere.  Langston Hughes is a master at calling us out on our hypocrisy.  "Let America Be America Again" may sound terrifyingly like a certain orange bully's slogan, but it is NOT.

George by Alex Gino.  
I'll be honest.  I was a little bit nervous about how my students would react to this book, the first one I'd added to my library that is specifically about a transgender character.  To be even more honest, I suspect that one reason why so many kids have picked it up is because it's short.  But that's not why they finish it, and that's not why they recommend it to their friends.  I especially appreciate that George is young enough that her sexuality isn't the issue--it's purely about who she is, not who she is attracted to.  My students get invested in her story and in making sure she gets justice.  (Final bout of honesty--I'm still working on getting boys to pick this one up.  Not sure what that's about, except that maybe the girls love it so much it makes them think it's a "girl book"?)

Separate is Never Equal:Sylvia Mendez and her Family's Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh.
Every time I read this to a class, they start off all weirded out by the art style Tonatiuh uses, especially the characters' ears.  I've tried explaining the historic roots of his style, I've tried pointing out that Greg Heffley isn't exactly drawn realistically, but what I've found works best is to just keep reading.  It doesn't take long for them to start paying more attention to the story than the ears.  I didn't know about Sylvia Mendez's pre-Brown Vs. Board of Education civil rights battle in California until I was a teacher.  Most of my students still have never heard about it.  Just as with Ruby Bridges' book, the ridiculousness of the adults' vile behavior towards children exposes their racist agenda.

Additional Suggestions

Morning Girl by Michael Dorris tells the story of a Taino indigenous family in the pre-Columbian era, including an epilogue that indicates the destruction that came with the invaders.  Poem supplement: Ursula Le Guin's "October 11, 1491"  with its heartbreaking warnings.

Stella by Starlight by Sharon Draper covers voter intimidation and KKK terror in the 1930s, and is far more interesting than I just made it sound.

The Circuit by Francisco Jimenez is the first of a multi book memoir by a professor who grew up as an undocumented migrant worker.  So many of my students have felt they better understood their parents and grandparents after reading these.

Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman is one of the best multiple POV books out there.  Each chapter has a new narrator, all drawn to a community garden that grows out of an empty lot in a nameless big city.  Race, immigrant status, age, religion and physical condition all weave into this tapestry.

March books 1-3 by John Lewis.  Civil Rights from the ground floor, in graphic novel format, told by a statesman of our times.  What's not to love?

How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon is another multiple POV story.  This one examines the shooting of an unarmed (or was he?) black teen by a white adult.  Hmm, why does this sound familiar?  Sharp and devastating without being polemic.  The story is about blacks and whites, but there are plenty of shades of grey to go around.

Aristotle & Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz is a remarkably hopeful intersectional story about two Latino boys discovering love in the 1980s.  I too was a teen in the 1980s, and there were NO out kids at my large suburban high school in liberal Portland, OR.  None.  What a bleak time to come of age for queer kids.  So I love that this isn't a sad story, or at least, not ONLY that.

Shine by Lauren Myracle is a tougher read, what with being inspired by the death of Matthew Shepherd and all.

Witness by Karen Hesse and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie belong on every single list ever written of YA books that deal with diversity.  Witness is both a novel in verse and a multiple POV book telling a story of when the KKK comes to a small Vermont town in the Prohibition era.  ATDOAPTI is classic Alexie, making you laugh and breaking your heart with equal ferocity.


  1. So much love for this post! I think March won the National Book Award last week (?). My brain is so discombobulated right now that I haven’t been paying much attention to the bookish world lately. I just ordered Witness, so it should be coming soon. A few days ago, I read Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson. It’s a picture book, but it’s beautiful and shows several generations of an African American family.

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

  2. I love this post! What a great list of books, and I'm adding several to my TBR!

  3. Thanks for caring that our children need to experience empathy, which is apparently not exemplified enough in their young lives. Yeah teachers!

  4. What a great list. I recently read Perks of Being a Wallflower and at 54 it all still rang true to high school. Dumplin' by Julie Murphy is a new title that is great.


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