By my second or third year of teaching Language Arts at FSA, I’d become pretty familiar with the books in my classroom. I had spent a lot of time organizing them, taking out volumes that were damaged, and generally making sure that the books were available to students not just as classroom books but as usable library books. I’d gotten pretty good at pointing students towards books that they might want to read, helping them to find stories that reflected their interests, or showing them new possible interests.
One student, however, was stumping me. They were an avid reader, and they liked romance stories, but they kept rejecting the books I suggested to them. Finally, the student told me the problem. “I don’t like reading romances,” they said, “because they’re all based on heterosexual people.”
This statement floored me.
I knew that romances and other stories that focused on LGBTQIA+ characters existed. Yet I could not name one book in our current library with that characteristic.
Here in front of me, I had a student who loved books and who loved to read, and I couldn’t successfully share stories with them because they didn’t see themselves in the books on our shelves. Their enjoyment for books was significantly damaged because they were tired of reading books that only represented the heterosexual norm.
This conversation made me wonder about the representation in the books I’d read as a student. Had I ever read a book about LGBTQIA+ characters? I could only name one gay relationship in a book: Magnus Bane and Alec Lightwood from the Mortal Instruments series, which I hadn’t read until after high school. Alec and Magnus are two of my favorite characters in the series, but they are side characters. And were they the very first gay couple I’d ever read about? It’s entirely possible that they were, that I had gone through the entirety of high school and not seen gay people represented in a book.
My discovery made me question even more. Had I ever read a book with a main character on the cover who was Latina? Had I ever read a book where the main Latina character had a Latino dad and a white mom? Had I ever read a book where one of the Latina character’s main joys was playing lotería at her grandmother’s on weekends? Had I ever seen any books about Latinx people at all that weren’t about drugs or gangs or struggles?
In short: Had I ever had the chance to see myself in the stories I read?
The answer, I feared, was a resounding “no.”
When I transitioned from being the Language Arts teacher in charge of books to the Middle School librarian, I knew that more than anything, I wanted my library to be a place where students from different places and identities could find something that they loved. But that wasn’t going to be possible if students from different places and identities were not represented in the books we had.
Since my conversation with that student, my goal for our Middle School library has been to incorporate books in which students can see themselves. I sought out books that had Black children doing magic on the covers and Latinx children playing soccer. I looked for graphic novels by Gene Leun Yang, a prominent American-Chinese author, and removed books from our space that had outdated and offensive portrayals of Indigienous Peoples. I added books that feature students who aren’t neurotypical or able bodied, and I made sure that all of our stories about diversity weren’t just stories of violence or struggle.
Having a diverse library doesn’t just help students who are part of a minority group. Diverse literature helps everyone to see that there are so very many people in the world and that one way of thinking isn’t the only way. For too long, the standard of literature has been that of white male authors, and while such books can carry value, there are so many other perspectives available to us. Reading is about opening minds and learning new things, and reading books by the same kinds of people about people who look the same limits not only a student’s potential to learn, but also a student’s potential to love what they’re reading.
Students from every identity deserve to see themselves in the books they’re reading. They deserve to think of themselves as the main characters, worthy of a cover, and not just a side character or comic relief.
Today, in my 7th year at FSA, I have students in my library constantly. They come in every day and find something new to love, and if we don’t have something they can connect with, I make it my job to try and get it for them.
One of our newest, and one of my favorite shelves in our library right now, is our LGBTQIA+ fiction section. It’s small, still growing, but it is unapologetic. I think of that student from my 2nd or 3rd year and the conversation we have every time I see it.
My biggest hope for our library is that every student will get the chance to feel welcomed, seen, and loved in this space.
If you would like to send a book to the Middle School Library the dream list is here.