Better Living Through Books

Head off efforts to ban diverse texts to help children succeed in school and life.

Topics: Literacy, Curriculum and Instruction, Equity and Diversity

A growing segment of the population seems to feel that diverse texts are dangerous. Adults are voicing concerns at school board meetings and trying to ban books to which they object from libraries and classrooms. And in many cases, they are succeeding.

There were more than 2,500 instances of books being banned from July 2021 to June 2022, according to freedom of expression advocate PEN America, affecting more than 1,600 unique book titles. In 2022 alone, legislators in 36 states proposed 137 bills designed to ban books in the classroom.

Besides undermining educators’ professional autonomy and pedagogy, such challenges are harming our kids—especially kids from historically marginalized communities. Unfortunately, book bans continue to make headway, even as we try to teach our youth how to be inclusive, accepting, empathetic, and culturally responsive humans.

“Books save lives,” says Alex Gino, the genderqueer author of George, a book about a transgender fourth grader. “When we find ourselves in their pages, we are less alone. When we meet others, we experience their humanity. Reading stories from and about people across a range of experiences and histories prepares us to respect, share, and protect our diverse world.”

Books Make Us Better

As a literacy leader, a book lover, and a kid supporter, I couldn’t agree more. Books are powerful. I tell anyone who will listen that books make us better humans. If we continue to ban books and limit support for diverse texts in libraries and classrooms, our children, their development, and their social-emotional health and well-being will worsen.

Jason Reynolds’ best-selling All American Boys appeared on the American Library Association’s list of most challenged books of 2020. “I write to Black children, but I write for all children,” he told The New Yorker. “I just want young people to read my books and feel cared for, feel safe, feel like there’s someone else in the world who understands—or at least acknowledges—your existence.”

Books such as Reynolds’ help all children see themselves and recognize and appreciate others who are different from them, opening discussions that build skills such as empathy and self-awareness. They have saved lives. I know that reading his books has made me a better human.

Former first lady Michelle Obama recently wrote her second book, The Light We Carry: Overcoming in Uncertain Times, and its messages hit home for me. “Read books by people whose perspective is different from yours, listen to voices you haven’t heard before, look for narratives that are new to you,” she writes. “In them and with them, you might end up finding more room for yourself.”

We need children to read and hear all different stories and perspectives. Giving kids space to question, acknowledge, celebrate, and wonder about their differences helps them learn about the world around them, while also helping them learn about who they are and who they might become.

“Our differences are treasures, and they’re also tools,” Obama writes. “They are useful, valid, worthy, and important to share. Recognizing this, not only in ourselves but in the people around us, we begin to rewrite more and more stories of not-mattering. We start to change the paradigms around who belongs, creating more space for more people. Step by step by step, we can lessen the loneliness of not-belonging.”

What Can School Leaders Do?

As school leaders, we often get caught in the middle of such controversies—and this issue presents the possibility of facing hostile parents, district leaders, community members, and legislators. Book bans might seem like things that are beyond our control, but there are ways we can protect the right to read diverse texts in our schools. Here are just a few:

  1. Check your collection. School leaders should be aware of what books are in classrooms and libraries. Help guide staff in performing a regular inventory that ensures that the school’s book collection is diverse and representative of the school community and the larger global community. Multicultural children’s book publisher Lee & Low Books offers a Classroom Library Questionnaire to help educators determine how culturally responsive and diverse their libraries are. If you find that your collection could use some more diversity, a good resource is We Need Diverse Books.
  2. Promote the power of books. School leaders can help their communities understand the importance of books that provide what Rudine Sims Bishop, professor emerita at The Ohio State University, describes as “windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors” to students. Elevate and celebrate diverse literature through classroom instruction and literacy-related events designed for families. “When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, and laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part,” Sims Bishop writes.
  3. Budget for books. If we’re serious about focusing on all kids being seen and heard and providing a variety of diverse texts, those priorities must be reflected in budget requests. Reading is critical to children’s ability to access the curriculum and make academic progress, as well as improving and maintaining mental health. Leaders can also get creative to find ways to get diverse books into their schools if budgets are tight: Apply for grants, seek book donations from organizations and local companies, or connect with authors through social media.

What Should School Leaders Do?

As instructional leaders, principals can go the extra mile on behalf of books by diverse authors. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Read what the students are reading. If we want our students to be readers of diverse texts, we need to be as well. While we can’t possibly read every single book in our schools, we should familiarize ourselves with a selection of current diverse picture and chapter books. We should also read the books that are being challenged so we can be prepared to respond to questions—or accusations—about these texts.
  2. Create an oasis of learning. School leaders should pay attention to the level of book access in their schools and in students’ homes. According to recent research from the United Kingdom’s National Literacy Trust, 1 in 5 children aged 5 to 8 don’t have a book of their own at home. In the U.S., frequent readers have an average of 139 books in their homes, Scholastic says, while infrequent readers have access to only 74. Add to this the fact that many schools—particularly in the lowest-income neighborhoods—can’t afford to buy books for classroom libraries. Geographic areas in which reading materials are difficult to obtain are called “book deserts.” We should be figuring out ways to flood these areas with books.
  3. Encourage courageous conversations. School leaders must make diverse texts available to students, read diverse texts to students, and encourage colleagues to engage in conversations with students around diverse texts. But the best thing we can do for all students and educators is to encourage courageous conversations about those diverse texts. Curriculum standards say we need to create critical thinkers; getting educators to be comfortable in uncomfortable, unpredictable, and often unscripted discussions that happen before, during, and after reading diverse texts is a surefire way to develop crucial critical thinking skills in students.

This might manifest as a class discussion about a powerful line in Ibtihaj Muhammad’s The Proudest Blue: “Some people don’t understand your hijab, Mama had said, but if you understand who you are, one day they will, too.” Or it might be a chat about social justice that connects with the title character in Janae Marks’ From the Desk of Zoe Washington, the story of a Black middle school student whose father is in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Whatever the text, students want to connect with stories, ask questions, talk about difficult topics, and try to understand the world around them.

Make Conversations Authentic

We need all sorts of books—especially diverse texts—to spark authentic conversations and promote critical thinking skills. We also need a strong social-emotional learning foundation to balance and support academics for all students. That strong foundation comes when kids feel seen and heard—when they develop an understanding of themselves and others. What can help them do this? Diverse books.

The best thing to connect critical thinking and achievement with social-emotional learning is books—all kinds of books. And what happens when we allow books to be challenged, banned, and taken away? Kids get only a limited view of their world. It’s like when you pull a card from the bottom row of a house of cards; without the foundation, they all come crashing down.

Our students don’t need fewer books; they need more. “There are many things that fall within your realm,” Danish educator Pernille Ripp writes in a plea to school leaders. “You can choose to create passionate reading environments, or you can support decisions to smother them. The choice is yours.” Please—for our students and for our humanity—choose wisely.

Liz Garden is principal of Henry P. Clough Elementary School in Holden, Massachusetts.