The day my teaching changed forever didn’t happen in a classroom. It happened at the local mall, in a bookstore that was going out of business. No English teacher can resist a book on sale, and what started with me grabbing a few interesting titles off the shelves, turned into the sales clerk helping me out with a $300 pile of books while my husband pulled the car up to the front door.
I had just returned from maternity leave and the teacher hired to teach my classes had struggled, to put it mildly. In the first ten minutes of my return, a student told me to “f**k off” and called me a dragon lady. At the beginning of the next class, one student chased another around the room with a chair. It was going to be an uphill battle to establish relationships, create community and earn the trust of my students.
Which brings me back to the book sale. My 2-year-old raced around the store and I handed my 3-month-old off to my husband as I had an epiphany. I started grabbing high-interest young adult literature off the shelves and began to wonder:
What if I let my students just read? What if they choose what they want, and I figure it out from there?
Since that fateful day in the bookstore nearly nine years ago, it didn’t take long for me to believe in the power of offering students choice and agency in what they read. I have watched student after student blossom, grow as readers and writers and become excited about school again. I see them outside of class: The hallway, a downtown cafe, or in the drive-thru of Dunkin Donuts, and they are excited to tell me what they’re reading. I have tried not to gloat, but it’s been remarkable.
However, I have also come to believe in the power and the necessity of representation. When I started this journey of curating a classroom library and focusing on student choice, I am embarrassed to admit that I did not consider the racial and gender identities of the people in the books that we read, or the identities of the students in my classroom. I was so hyper-focused on increasing the volume of books in my room that I lost sight of who the readers were in my room.
Our classroom libraries need to represent our students, but they also need to represent the world that our students live in. This does not mean having one bin of books marked “Diversity,” and it does not mean having stories of black and brown teenagers who are selling drugs and in gangs. It means looking at what we read and asking the question, “Whose voices do we hear?” and, more importantly, “Whose voices have we left out?”
It was difficult to pare down the following list, but each of these books represents a voice that our students desperately need to hear. If you’re wondering how to include more diverse student voices in your classroom library, be sure to include these 10 books:
1. Poet X by Elisabeth Acevedo
This engaging story written in verse follows Xiomara, a ninth grader at her neighborhood public school in New York City. She is a feisty Latinx young woman who is in conflict with her parents, her faith, her brother and her best friend. She finds her voice through slam poetry, and in the process, finds a way to mend the relationships in her life.
2. The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon
Natasha, an undocumented, Jamaican immigrant is facing deportation and Daniel, a first-generation Korean American is torn between following his dreams and living up to his parents’ dreams. Their worlds collide in New York City as Daniel tries to save Natasha’s family from being sent back to a country that is no longer home.
3. The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
Josh is a 12-year-old who lives for basketball. But when his twin brother meets a girl, everything changes. This story told in verse explores family, race, friends and basketball.
4. If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth
It’s 1975 and Lewis lives on the Tuscarora Indian reservation. George’s family has recently moved to the area with the Air Force and the boys become friends. Their worlds are starkly different, however, and Lewis finds himself lying to hide the reality of his family’s poverty from his new friend.
5. Like A Love Story by Abdi Nazemian
Reza is an Iranian boy who has just moved to New York City. He is scared that his family will learn his secret—that he is gay. Judy, who worships her uncle, a gay man with AIDS, falls for Reza and they begin dating. Art, Judy’s best friend, the only out and proud student in their school, begins to grow closer to Reza, who has to find a way out of his deception without hurting the people he loves.
6. The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney, Shane W. Evans (Illustrator)
Inspired by true stories of life in Sudan, Amira’s life falls apart when the Janjaweed attack her peaceful Sudanese village. She must travel on foot to a refugee camp and begins to lose all hope until the gift of a red pencil opens her mind and heart to new possibilities.
7. Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka
Jarrett is only a preschooler when he goes to live with his grandparents because his mother is addicted to heroin. This true story, a graphic novel, chronicles his journey to adulthood and explores how art, poverty, teachers and his grandparents both changed and saved his life.
8. Internment by Samira Ahmed
Set in a near-future United States, Layla and her parents are put into an internment camp for Muslim Americans. She works to fight for her freedom with help from her boyfriend on the outside. She is fighting for freedom and leads a revolution against the guards and director of the camp.
9. How Dare the Sun Rise by Sandra Uwiringiyimana, Abigail Pesta
The true story of Sandra, who at the age of ten found herself with a gun pointed at her head, watching as rebels murdered her mother and sister in a refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Miraculously, she escaped and moved to America through a United Nations refugee program. She may have found safety in New York City, but now she must navigate a new country, middle school and find a way to give a voice to her people.
10. Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga
Jude must leave her family behind in Syria when she and her mother flee Syria for the United States. She must adjust to a new culture, a new family, and new friends, while still worrying about those who she left behind.
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