on serving preservice teachers during a time of book banning

Mine is a wildly varied job, one where I spend a large part of my time giving directions (printer’s over there, bathroom’s yonder, oh sorry you want the men’s bathroom that’s thataway, yeah we finally have a color printer again it’s yonder) and then can bounce in a moment to doing intensive research and hunting down difficult to find primary sources. (I’ve gotten really good at that, and I’m damn proud of it.) I also serve perservice teachers, and (kind of accidentally) preservice speech therpaists.

It is an honor to serve education and speech and communication disorders students. It can also be hella fun: I do a lot of work with youth literature, with both education and speech and communication disorders students. I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with some of my amazing faculty (on, among other things, this massive list), and have presented with one; we’re both hoping to work together a lot more, going forward, so we can best serve our preservice teachers’ youth literacy needs. But, especially in this time of book banning and anti-teacher and anti-human legislation, this beautiful space of teaching future educators and speech therapists about youth literature can also be a strange, fraught space in which to work.

Every kid deserves to see themselves reflected in their country’s popular culture, including books and movies. (Hello, Turning Red and Minari and Black Panther.) And, when I talk to preservice educators, I stress the importance of making sure the material we choose reflects our world, not just, like, us. I talk about how, as a dyslexic, I did not see myself represented until my twenties. It’s getting better now—there are books like Fish in a Tree and Six of Crows, with its achingly accurate portrayal of Wylan van Eck—but there still isn’t a lot of representation. (I don’t even go into my chronic illnesses and my pain condition, but believe me, those are even more poorly represented.) I say, please don’t let your students be in their twenties or thirties before they see themselves. It does a good job of catching attention, at the very least. And if I, a white woman, can remind people of the importance of seeing others and seeing the self, then maybe I can also make them remember.

Years ago now, education and children’s literature scholar Rudine Sims Bishop wrote about books as mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. I think it’s an essential concept, a way to remember the things that books can offer us. (I also think it’s worth noting that the same book can be, to the same person, a mirror, a window, and a sliding glass door all at the same time.) I’ve wondered, though, if this is the very reason why Republicans are attempting to ban works by queer authors and authors of color. Do they want to prevent this ability to empathize, to realize that the Other isn’t so Other after all? If my students go forth and fearlessly teach the works of creators of color and queer creators, will they—even in the relatively liberal Chicago area—face public pressure?

Based on what we’ve seen at some Chicago-area libraries, I think the answer to that is, unfortunately, yes. Similarly, depending upon the neighborhood where they teach, reception of representative texts will be very different. In Hyde Park no one will likely bat a lash at Separate Is Never Equal or Danbi Leads the School Parade or The Downstairs Girl (which I’ve written about), but in Mount Greenwood? The response could be quite different. How do I support preservice educators, knowing the backlash they may face? If they’re getting backlash for a graphic novel—which, as we know, happens all the time—I can always suggest the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. But more generally? There is always the NCTE, but people need so much more support than one organization can provide. I’m working on a list of resources now, and I hope to get it together fairly soon, but it is depressing, slow work, and in the midst of my own difficulties, working on something that hurts often takes a back burner.

Self-censorship will be an increasingly big issue, going forward. I don’t mean the kind of self-censorship that The New York Times likes to write about: in fact, I doubt they’ll ever mention this one, because it won’t fit their narratives. Instead, it’s the kind where librarians might not purchase representative books, because they’re afraid (and rightly so) of being fired, or losing funding, or even being tried under some draconian law that thumbs its nose at the First Amendment. I’m worried about teachers slowly drawing back, and no longer reading texts like Concrete Rose or The Arabic Quilt or Granddad’s Camper or even The Blue House. Will Superman Smashes the Klan have a space on the shelf, in this world of censorship and simmering violence? What about A Song Below Water?

I don’t know exactly what I’m doing, right now. I love working with youth literature, and I love sharing youth literature, showcasing the incredible work that is being published right now, in this strange, frightful moment in time. But I am also afraid of where this moment will lead, and who will support those of us who continue to try to share representative work. And I worry that publishers will eventually pull away, because never mind that this work sells: they’d rather just publish another memoir by someone who instigated the January 6th attack on our democracy. But, at least for now, I’ll continue to read everything Book Riot publishes about censorship, and I’ll continue to purchase representative books, and to celebrate them, and to suggest them. Because every damn one of us needs mirrors, and windows, and sliding glass doors, and I believe it is the moral imperative of every librarian and every teacher to ensure that those books are available.

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