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Thursday, April 25, 2024

Revolutionary reading: Using literature to help youth tackle tough topics

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The benefits of reading to and with children are innumerable and well documented. 

A 1985 report by the Commission on Reading said reading aloud with children is “the single most important activity” for laying the foundation for a future of successful reading. Successful reading, in turn, opens doors to academic success, upward mobility and economic security.

Reading aloud to students has been gaining favor even among high school teachers, according to a 2010 report by Education Week.

Regardless of a child’s age or developmental level, literature can be a valuable tool in helping developing minds make sense of complex topics, some of which even adults struggle to understand.


Big topics for little people

Dr. Benetta Johnson, of Hope Haven Psychological Resource in Indianapolis, said features like illustrations and animal characters make children’s books a great way to open doors to difficult conversations with young children.

“Especially if the child is familiar with being read to, there’s a sense of comfort with that,” Johnson said.

As a psychologist, Johnson is well versed in the ways in which books can be used to address behavioral issues with children. In particular, Johnson mentioned titles from the Best Behavior Series (which include books like Teeth Are Not for Biting and Hands Are Not for Hitting) and the classic Berenstain Bears series, which has books that focus on honesty, manners and forgiveness, among many other topics.

In addition to maintaining her private practice, Johnson has worked for the Julian Center Counseling Center, where she led group and individual therapy sessions for women and children who had experienced traumatic life events, such as domestic violence and neglect, other topics that can be found among children’s books.

According to the 2013 book The Origins and History of American Children’s Literature, children’s books that address trauma are relatively new, having sprouted out of the atmosphere of social revolution in the 1960s.

Today, social movements such as Black Lives Matter are spurring the creation of a library of children’s lit focused on current events, social responsibility and identity.

“For parents whose child is going to be in an environment where they think they might not be respected, they can look for books that celebrate a child’s hair texture, skin color, etc.,” Johnson said. “In regards to racial identity, our people can be very proactive with using and finding books about … Black and African-American experience in the United States and beyond.”

Johnson said caregivers might use such books to take a proactive approach in addressing what children might see in other media, such as violence in the news or limited portrayals of Black people on TV.

Kenneth Braswell saw that opportunity when his then-6-year-old son began asking questions about protest in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death at the hands of police in Baltimore. In response to his son’s questions, Braswell created the book Daddy, There’s a Noise Outside, which features a Black mother and father explaining different types of protests to their children using examples such as the Million Man March.

“Our children deserve to understand the society in which they live,” Braswell told TheRoot.com. “At young ages they begin to develop a framework of their community based on how their community impacts them. Six- to 9-year-old children need 6- to 9-year-old answers about what’s happening in the community around them.”

New York Times bestselling author Kwame Alexander, a poet and educator who has published 21 books for children, told the Recorder in an interview last November about the impact books had on him as a child and how he aims to recreate that impact for today’s youth.

“I really believe that words can empower young people and give them a voice and show them how to raise that voice and stake their place in this world. I know that, because that’s what’s happened to me,” Alexander said. “From a very young age, we’ve got to make sure our children have access to books that reflect their world, reflect their lives … also books that show them the world that is outside of themselves. Books can become mirrors and windows for young people and really help them see what’s possible.”


A window to the world

The role of literature in helping children understand the world is not limited to young children.

From peer pressure and body image issues, to poverty, bullying and sexual assault, the transition between childhood and adulthood can be challenging for many teens. Young Adult (YA) literature can offer a place of solace for youth, as it allows teens to read about characters overcoming many of the challenges they face in their personal lives and broadens their outlook on life’s possibilities. However, the number of teens reading for fun has declined in recent years. According to a study by Common Sense Media, the number of young people reading for fun decreases dramatically as children get older and reach their tween and teenage years. In addition, white students continue to score substantially higher on literacy tests than Black or Hispanic students. 

Nichelle Hayes, librarian and future head of the Center for African-American Literature and Culture at Central Library, says good YA lit serves as “a window to the world” for junior high and high school students as they learn about important topics. Anne Frank’s The Diary of A Young Girl gives teens an honest look at the systematic, state-sponsored persecution many faced during the Holocaust through the eyes of a teenage girl, while the novel I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World transports readers to Pakistan, where young human rights advocate Malala Yousadzai continued her fight for women’s rights after being shot by a Taliban gunman.

“When the civil rights leaders of the past were doing their work, they were very young, in their 20s or 30s. By learning their stories, I hope young people will see they are not too young to do this work,” said Hayes. “Teens can learn about subjects they don’t have a direct relationship to through reading. We want young people to know they can be or do anything that they have an interest in doing. We want them to see themselves as a neurosurgeon, scientist or astronaut.”

Hayes says her love of literature was sparked at a young age when she took part in the local library’s summer reading program. Though she read books from all genres, it was comic books that stood out to her as a teenager. 

As an adult, Hayes has been equally engaged in giving the community access to great stories. In the past, Hayes served as a media specialist at a local school. With her new role as specialist for the Center for African-American Literature and Culture, she hopes to offer Indianapolis a place to learn more about the amazing books written by and for Black Americans. This new role is important to her because even though she thinks reading offers young people a window to the world, some teens still find it difficult to find their faces and experiences reflected. 

“There is a need for diversity in youth literature, and we have to support what’s out there. To shine a spotlight on what’s out there we have to speak with our dollars, purchase those things and advocate by saying this is what I’m looking for,” said Hayes.

School aftercare teacher and education major Lauren Allen agrees that diversity in literature is important. Growing up, Allen loved to read about history and culture.

“Books are great vehicles to make issues on a global scale more personal to our lives. As a student, I chose to do an independent study on the Holocaust after reading Anne Frank’s diary, and that led to an interest in WWII. When I was in high school, I made it a point to read a diverse range of books. There were books on the subject of poverty that made it much more personal to me,” said Allen.

Allen says she is a fan of promoting various forms of diversity in literature because teens will be more likely to read if they can relate to the characters.

“I am very interested in the 1000 Black Girl Book project, because my opinion as an educator is that in order to get students engaged in books, they need to see themselves reflected in the person they are reading about,” said Allen. 

The 1000 Black Girl Book project is an online resource created by 12-year-old Marley Dias to help parents, educators and teens find books with inspirational protagonists of color. Other initiatives to promote diversity in literature include Books N Bros, a reading club started by a pre-teen boy in St. Louis, and Teach for Change, a diversity- and social justice-focused reading curriculum that helps parents and teachers find books that encourage readers to build a more equitable, multicultural society. 

Hayes agrees that while there have been improvements, diversity is still an issue in teen literature. She hopes the Central Library’s new Center for African-American Literature and Culture, opening in October, will be a step in the right direction. 

“What we are trying to do is be both a window and a mirror. We would like people of other cultures to learn about the rich culture of Africans all over the world, especially people in our city.”


Revolutionary reading guide:


I, Too, am America by Langston Hughes

Winner of the Coretta Scott King illustrator award, I, Too, Am America blends the poetic wisdom of Langston Hughes with visionary illustrations from Bryan Collier in this inspirational picture book that carries the promise of equality.


Life’s Challenges series by Melissa Higgins and Nancy Loewen

Gender neutral animal characters and inviting illustrations gently explore difficult situations — the incarceration of a parent, the death of a pet, divorce and death in the family — allowing children going through tough times to find comfort in characters with whom they can relate. Sidebars offer important and empowering coping tips.


Lillian’s Right to Vote: A Celebration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by Jonah Winter

As Lillian, a 100-year-old African-American woman, makes a “long haul up a steep hill” to her polling place, she sees more than trees and sky — she sees her family’s history. She sees the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment and her great-grandfather voting for the first time. She sees her parents trying to register to vote. And she sees herself marching in a protest from Selma to Montgomery.


A is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara

A is for Activist is an ABC board book written and illustrated for the next generation of progressives: families who want their kids to grow up in a space that is unapologetic about activism, environmental justice, civil rights, LGBTQ rights and everything else that activists believe in and fight for. 


When a Bully is President: Truth and Creativity for Oppressive Times by Maya Gonzalez

Playful ink and watercolor illustrations support a powerful journey that touches on bullying in the founding history of the U.S., how that history may still be impacting kids and families today and ways to use creativity and self respect in the face of negative messages for all marginalized communities. 



How It Went Down by KeKla Magoon

When 16-year-old Tariq Johnson dies from gunshot wounds, his community is divided. Tariq was Black. The shooter is white. Was it a hate crime or self-defense, or is truth a little less black and white than society makes it out to be? With a plot that unfortunately mirrors the real world far too well, will the community figure out how it went down?


Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

This is the rocky coming-out story of 16-year-old Simon Spier, who is being blackmailed by the class clown. Sexuality and LGBT issues are explored in this quirky teen love story.


Monster by Walter Dean Myers

“Monster” is what the prosecutor called 16-year-old Steve Harmon for his supposed role in the fatal shooting of a convenience-store owner. In this book, racial profiling, peer pressure and justice are explored as aspiring filmmaker Steve chronicles the courtroom proceedings in movie script format. 


Sold by Patricia McCormick

When 13-year-old Lakshmi is introduced to a glamorous stranger, she thinks he will help her find a job as a maid in the city. Unbeknownst to her, she has been sold into prostitution. Will she risk everything for a chance to reclaim her life? This powerful teen novel introduces readers to a world that is just as unimaginable as it is real. 


Mare’s War by Tanita S. Davis

Mare tells her granddaughters the story of how she came to enlist in the army during WWII, trained in the South and served overseas in England and France. Mare’s story addresses a number of serious issues — attempted child sexual abuse, family strife, poverty, racial discrimination and inequality, lesbianism — as it highlights the numerous “wars” that Mare fought while growing up.

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