One of the highlights of this year’s Texas Library Association conference for me was my panel on Tough Issues – Deep Impact: How Middle Grade Books Can Inspire Empathy and Empower Young Readers. The topic is important to me, but the reason why this panel was a highlight is that the issue came up time and again during the week.
I got together with author R.L. Toalson (THE COLORS OF THE RAIN) to propose the panel, and I was thrilled when TLA accepted it for the 2019 conference, championed by retired librarian Kate DiPronio and moderated by wonderful Round Rock ISD librarian Kim Miller. We wrote the proposal with three basic ideas:
- As much as we hate to believe it, kids go through tough times – at home, in school, in the world
- Reading about tough issues helps kids build their courage in a world where they have little agency
- Even if kids are not going through the same tough issues as the characters in their books, they learn empathy for their fellow humans through the stories.
Kids see more now than they ever have before. Many experience horrors at home, and those who don’t, see it on their TVs. They need to be able to process their feelings about these horrors and they do that in the same way that they learn about other experiences, through play.
The wonderful thing about learning through books is that when the going gets too tough, they can put the book down, close it, think about it, talk about it, process it, then pick it up again when they’re ready. Also, because the books are for children, there’s hope at the end, and hope it what gives us all the courage we need.
During our panel, R.L. Toalson talked about meeting a boy who came up to her with a copy of her book and said it was the first time he’d seen his own life in a novel. That was important for that child – he felt seen, understood, like he wasn’t alone.
Marie Miranda Cruz (EVERLASTING NORA) and Angela Cervantes (LETY OUT LOUD) talked about why they wrote about children with their own backgrounds: Because when they were young, they couldn’t see themselves in books, and they wanted others to be able to. For Marie Miranda Cruz, her book also brought a story from another place in the world, the Philippines, to young readers in America. But because it deals with poverty and bullying, children here can see the differences and similarities, building empathy and a connection between children across an ocean.
For myself, I talked about being the new kid a lot as a child, feeling insecure and never enough, like many children do, and how those feelings infused the story of THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST.
During my signing, this issue of agency and the need to be seen in books came up again when I met a teacher who works with foster children. She said they often feel insecure and as though they don’t belong, so she said she was glad to get the copy of the book. I told her about the Make Your Own Courage Art Therapy Project I had worked on with child therapist Bonnie Thomas LCSW in association with THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST.
And this reminded me of the importance of these types of books.
As I spoke to attendees after the panel, they told me they were pleased to get tips to take back to their libraries. That made everything worth it to me.
Kids need funny books, and light books, and comic books, and fantasy books, and mystery books, and books that deal with tough issues. Kids need ALL the books.
Also, a big THANK YOU to author K.A. Reynolds (THE SPINNER OF DREAMS), who helped with all the preparation for this panel but was unable to attend due to a family emergency. We wish her the absolute best.
Do you have a favorite book that deals with tough issues? Let us know in the comments.