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“Leave the books on the bed”: Shaping a child’s social conscience

Claudette Colvin“Maybe you can help me,” a teacher called from our school library’s biography section. “I need books about…protest, I guess.” Her son’s middle school class was debating NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem, as a protest against the oppression of people of color. At first her son defended Kaepernick, but he shifted his position after reading pieces criticizing the athlete for protesting “the wrong way.”

My teacher colleague was shocked. “My husband is an immigrant, but our son is a light-skinned American boy. I want him to understand how the world sees him, and how people of color have had to protest and ‘disobey’ to make change. But he’s just pushing back on me, like he does about so many things…”

Aha! This was not just a parent helping with a school project. This was a mother trying to shape her adolescent’s social conscience. It wasn’t enough for me to select books — I needed to guide her about how to use them.

That’s when I thought about periods. Yes, periods. Growing up in the 1980s, it seemed as if my friends’ mothers conspired about how to deal with puberty questions. They had all checked out stacks of books from the public library and left them on our beds with a note: “Let me know if you have questions. Love, Mom.”

Was it a parental cop-out? Or an invitation? For me, the books and the note, combined, opened a conversation based on a shared knowledge of scientific facts rather than an eye-roll-inducing Big Talk. I trusted books, and the fact that my mom selected them helped me trust her. Those books bred a healthy skepticism about older kids’ versions of “the facts of life” for me in the same way that my colleague was hoping that reading about history would help her son interrogate biased statements.

With this in mind, I handed her a stack of books. “Read them yourself. And then, leave the books on his bed. Write a note, let him know you’re available to talk. And then leave it alone.” She looked wary, but promised to try.

* * * * *

At the 2016 Horn Book at Simmons Colloquium, author Carole Boston Weatherford defended the inclusion of “difficult subjects” in picture books including her her book, Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement (which was named a 2016 Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor Book for nonfiction). Weatherford declared, “Children know the right questions to ask.” Indeed, grounding difficult conversations in shared books shows respect for a child; a grownup trusts him or her to think critically about complex moral questions.

Part of growing up is constructing opinions based on the information available — whether online, print, or word-of-mouth. As kids hurtle toward adulthood, there’s an urge to imprint on them our deepest moral beliefs — right when young people are most apt to question parental authority. Luckily, the kids I know still trust books, and this often rubs off on the people who give them books.

A week later, my colleague sidled up to me at a staff meeting. “Jen, it’s working. We are really talking.” I smiled. Give kids the books, and leave the door open. They know what to do.

Books to Suggest

Bausum, Ann. Freedom Riders: John Lewis and Jim Zwerg on the Front Lines of the Civil Rights Movement. (National Geographic, 2005).

Hoose, Phillip M. Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice. (Farrar, 2009).

Levinson, Cynthia. We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March. (Peachtree, 2012).

Lewis, John, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell. March (Trilogy). (Top Shelf Productions, 2013, 2015, 2016).

Myers, Walter Dean. The Greatest: Muhammad Ali. (Scholastic, 2001)

O’Brien, Anne Sibley. After Gandhi: One Hundred Years of Nonviolent Resistance. (Charlesbridge, 2009).

Partridge, Elizabeth. Walk Together Children and Don’t You Grow Weary. (Viking, 2009).

Smith, Jr., Charles R. and Brian Collier. 12 Rounds to Glory: The Story for Muhammad Ali. (Candlewick, 2007).

Weatherford, Carole Boston. Freedom on the Menu: the Greensboro Sit-Ins. (Dial, 2005).

Weatherford, Carole Boston and Ekua Holmes. Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement. (Candlewick, 2016)

For more, see The Horn Book’s “Making a Difference” booklist and visit our Making a Difference landing page.

Jen Mason Stott About Jen Mason Stott

Jen Mason Stott is the librarian at King Open School, a public, social justice-focused K-5 school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Jen earned her MLIS at Simmons College and her BA at Vassar College.

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Comments

  1. This is super relevant and a great resource! Thanks for posting!

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