We all know that there are very good books out there that depict characters of diverse backgrounds, making it easier to reach out to the kids we know from diverse backgrounds. But finding those titles and including them only on displays or in themes entitled Diversity is a disservice both to the books and to kids.
Books featuring characters of color, characters with disabilities, or LGBT characters belong in standard collections, thematic units of study, and in the hands of all readers—not only in those of the communities they represent.
Here are some new titles that deserve to be read—and not only by the young people they represent.
Black Boy White School by Brian Walker chronicles a powerful year in the life of Anthony Jones, a streetwise and academically able 14-year-old growing up in a gritty neighborhood in East Cleveland. After finding that he has been awarded a full scholarship at Belton Academy, an overwhelmingly white prep school in Maine, “Ant” witnesses the horrific murder of a close friend and decides to go, despite reservations about leaving home and entering a daunting new environment. During Anthony’s freshman year, he grapples with racism and socioeconomic tensions as he struggles with his own identity. A thoroughly likeable character caught in two difficult worlds, Anthony has a lot to share. Rough language and violence underscore Walker’s important story.
Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kirstin Cronn-Mills and I Am J by Cris Beam share a similar premise—both protagonists are young men who were born in girls’ bodies. In Beautiful Music, Gabe (born Elizabeth) has a passion for music and a part-time night DJ gig at a community radio station. His show—Beautiful Music for Ugly Children—attracts some local attention—mostly good, but also a couple of hateful young men bent on destroying Gabe. With the support of his friends, Gabe finds a way to pave a future for himself.
In I am J, Cris Beam draws on her experiences as a teacher at an LGBT high school in Los Angeles to tell the story of J, who was born as Jennifer. While he is living as a girl, J feels alienated from his family and friends, but he knows that they wouldn’t accept him as a boy. He feels trapped and running away seems like the only answer, which is a common choice among LGBT youth. J finds help in a high school similar to the one in which the author taught, where he learns about transitioning, starts to build a support system, and finally begins to feel comfortable in his own skin. Teen readers may find that they relate to J’s outsider status and his frustration with labels that don’t quite fit, even if they have no experience with transgender individuals.
Include the above titles in an Identity theme or unit—inclusive of everyone—encouraging students to tackle questions such as, “How do you know when you have found your place in the world?” and “How and why do people change?” And challenge kids to try books featuring characters unlike themselves!
Bibliography of Titles for Identity Theme:
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. 9780316013680. 2007. Gr 9-12.
Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kirstin Cronn-Mills. 9780738732510. 2012. Gr 9-12.
Black Boy White School by Brian Walker. 9780061914836. 2012. Gr 9-12.
Black Helicopters by Blythe Woolston. 9780763661465. March 2013. Gr 9-12.
The Book of Jonas by Stephen Dau. 9780399158452. 2012. Gr 11-Adult.
Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier. 9780439357623. 2002. Gr 7-12.
Boy 21 by Matthew Quick. 9780316127974. 2012. Gr 7-12.
A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life by Dana Reinhardt. 9780375846915. 2007. Gr. 8-12.
Carly’s Voice: Breaking through Autism by Arthur Fleischmann. 9781439194140. 2012. Gr 11-Adult.
Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White by Lila Quintero Weaver. 9780817357146. 2012. Gr 11-Adult.
Dead to You by Lisa McMann. 9781442403888. 2012. Gr 10-12.
Double by Jenny Valentine. 9781423147145. 2012. Gr 9-12.
Flip by Martyn Bedford. 9780385908085. 2011. Gr 9-12.
I Am J by Cris Beam. 9780316053617. 2011. Gr 9-12.
Jumpstart the World by Catherine Ryan Hyde. 9780375866654. 2010. Gr 10-12.
The List by Siobhan Vivian. 9780545169172. 2012. Gr 9-12.
Mexican White Boy by Matt de la Pena. 9780385903295. 2008. Gr 9-12.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth. 9780062020567. 2012. Gr 9-12.
Guestblogger: Lori C.