Guest post by Edith Campbell — a mother, librarian, and quilter.
For 6 years, I worked as a librarian in a high school in Indiana that struggled to help students achieve academic success. I truly enjoyed being their librarian. Don’t let anyone tell you that “these students” don’t read. By the numbers “these students” were 96% Black and 85% low income. By my memory, they were sponges who soaked in knowledge at every opportunity. They were amazing people who were full of wonder, possibilities and potential. For each of the 6 years I worked with them, I checked out at least twice as many books as students in the 1100 student school, one year even four times as much. My students were readers and sophisticated readers at that. They knew exactly what they would enjoy reading. While they sometimes requested popular YA titles, they would most consistently ask for urban lit. I found it for them in YA form and they inhaled it.
I had a student who, after reading Dana Davidson’s Jason and Kyra desperately wanted another simply nice romance with Black characters but there are very, very few. She re-read Jason and Kyra a couple of times and eventually quit coming to the library. Students would long for books with Black teens that followed the trends like vampires, zombies and urban adventures, but the books just weren’t there.
Students consistently asked for mysteries with Black characters and I could produce none. Quite often, students would all want the same copy of a book and when it wasn’t available, a friend would say not to worry she would lend out her own copy that she had at home. Yes, they buy books, too. I can’t help but wonder how book sales would increase if they were advertised in ESPN magazine or placed in a reality TV show. Do publishers really think teens read book reviews?
I was able to introduce some of my students to girls around the world who struggled through real life situations in fiction and these books would stay in high demand. This included books like Scars by Cheryl Rainfield, Sold by Patricia McCormick, and Debra Ellis’ series in Afghanistan.
There were golden moments too, times when I would have students tell me they hated reading, had never and would never read a book, and I’d give them a copy of Panther Baby and tell them not read beyond the first chapter and they’d insist on checking the book out.
I can’t help but wonder how many more books these students would buy or borrow to read if they were simply available. I reflect here mostly about the Black students I worked with but I had Latino students too who wanted more series, more adventures, more ordinary books with Latino characters but they couldn’t find them. I know those working with Native American and Asian American students have the same lament.
Teachers are always looking for dynamic stories with characters that accurately reflect the populations they teach to incorporate into the curriculum, but they only know about the same books they were introduced to in that one course in college. I guess they were lucky they had a librarian who could introduce them to new books. Getting books with characters of color into the curriculum is crucial in validating not only a student’s reading experience but the student himself.
When my students—when any student—finds that one magical book that relates to them, they will not want to stop reading as long as they can continue to find more books. I worked hard to find them for my students, but there aren’t enough! I don’t work with these students any more, but I’m still fighting the good fight.