It’s been a while, hasn’t it? The end of the semester was a little busy for me, and then I just wanted a break from thinking about school for a bit. 🙂 But now I’m back, and I’m happy to say that I passed both my classes and have a GPA of 3.5! I’m very pleased–that’s quite good for me, and it’s a great way to start a new school career.
Summer classes start next week, and I’m taking two. One is called Chemical Health in Public Schools, I think (too lazy to look up the exact wording), and I still have no idea what it’s going to entail. The other one is Social Justice in Children’s and Young Adult Literature, and I’m really excited for it! I’ll be learning how to select books that promote diversity, equality, and other virtues of that sort, as well as how to talk about those books to others.
Social justice is a subject that’s important to me, both as a person of this world and more specifically as a Catholic. We are called by God to work for justice for all people, and one way to open people’s hearts is through their minds. When you provide children with a view of the world that accepts all people and tells stories of more than just the majority, you can help them see all people as valuable members of our global society. And for those children whose experiences are underrepresented in the media, you can show them that their stories are as valuable as anyone else’s. Because I have to take education classes as well as library science classes, I only get one elective in my program, and I was determined that it would be this class. What could possibly be more important?
It’s going to be a rigorous, fast-paced course–we meet twice a week, three hours each time!–but I think it’ll be fun, too. One of my first assignments is to choose a book that speaks to a social justice issue that matters to me and bring it in to discuss. I’m having trouble picking just one, though! Here are my first few thoughts:
Flygirl – Sherri L. Smith
If you haven’t had to listen to me prattle on about Flygirl yet, you are a lucky person. 😀 It’s one of the best books I’ve read so far this year, and I think everyone ought to read it. Flygirl tells the story of Ida Mae Jones, an African-American pilot who lives in the American South during World War II. After her brother joins the Army, she’s determined that she, too, will help the war effort–in her case, by joining the WASP. But to do that, she has to forge a pilot’s license and pass as a white woman.
The social justice aspect of this book that’s most important to me is the fact that Smith takes the time to tell a story about the past we don’t always hear about. I didn’t know about the WASP before reading the book; it never occurred to me to wonder who flew military planes in the United States when the men were in Europe and the Pacific. The story doesn’t varnish the racism and sexism Ida Mae faces, but it makes the story about something more than facing prejudice–and I think it’s really valuable to have stories that aren’t just Very Special Episodes about how bad various -isms are. It’s important that Ida Mae is a capable woman with goals, dreams, and a personality of her own. She’s not solely defined by the hardships she faces, even though they do affect her life significantly. And the female relationships it portrays are positive and affirming.
Wonder – R.J. Palacio
Wonder is the story of a boy called Auggie who has a craniofacial abnormality. In laymen’s terms, that means his face doesn’t look like most people’s, and he gets treated very differently for it. Up until the fifth grade, Auggie has been homeschooled by his mother, but he’s about to be mainstreamed into a private school with other children. The book follows him over the course of his first year at that school and looks at how his life, as well as those of his older sister and their friends, are affected by his appearance.
That might make it sound a little Very Special Episode, but the narrative is deft enough to avoid those things. The ableism Auggie experiences is realistic–everything from small things, like small children crying when they see him, to large things, like another student’s parent attempting to have him removed from the school–and not everybody learns a lesson by the end. Neither Auggie nor the people around him are perfect, but everyone in the story is portrayed with fairness and respect.
Hero – Perry Moore
Thom Creed has superpowers. He’s also gay. He’d really prefer if his dad didn’t know about either of these things–his father, a disgraced superhero himself, has more than enough on his plate as it is. When he’s asked to join the League, a Justice League-esque superhero organization his dad was kicked out of, he decides to keep it secret. But eventually the truth of both his superpowers and his sexual orientation come out, and Thom has to deal with the consequences—not to mention save the day.
As with Flygirl, Hero isn’t a story content to be about being a minority: while Thom’s struggle with his orientation is a major part of the story, he’s also a goddamn superhero (if not the Goddamn Batman). The story has action and adventure, and unlike other superhero stories (see the movie X2 for an example), it doesn’t settle for mutant powers as a metaphor for sexuality. Instead, it allows Thom’s interest in other boys be front and center along with the action. That was a conscious choice on the part of Moore, who was frustrated with DC and Marvel Comics’ tendency to kill off gay characters or otherwise treat them horribly.
Pinky and Rex and the Bully – James Howe
Pinky and Rex is a charming series of easy-reader books from the 1990s, and Pinky and Rex and the Bully is my favourite of all of them. Pinky is a little boy who loves the color pink, while Rex is a little girl who loves dinosaurs–and they’re best friends. But when a bully tells them that boys can’t like pink and girls can’t like dinosaurs, they have to decide whether their interests are more important than what someone else thinks they “should” be doing.
The Pinky and Rex books are gentle little stories, and this one is as low-key as any of them. But the story reinforces the idea that gender norms are harmful and restrictive, and that children’s interests shouldn’t be defined by a gender binary. The story is a good one for all children, but especially for gender non-conforming children who may face teasing from children and disapproval for adults.
As you can see, when it comes to social justice and children’s books, the books that appeal to me most are the ones where the message doesn’t overpower the whole story. “Message books” have their value, but I think that it’s equally important to present minority characters who have lives beyond being minorities. Exciting action, intriguing mysteries, and feats of derring-do shouldn’t be limited to people who are white, male, and able-bodied! Everyone should get to take part.