At the start of this school year (2015-16), my library classes discussed books as windows and mirrors. I promised my students that I would do my best to have books in the library that opened their eyes to the world around them, as well as books that they could relate to on a very personal level. Little did I realize what a vital role this theme would play for many of my students. With the recent censorship controversy revolving around of Kate Messner’s Seventh Wish, I feel it is important to speak out.
As I reflect on this past school year and working as a library teacher at an intermediate school filled with 636 inquisitive and open-minded 5th and 6th graders in Falmouth (Cape Cod), Massachusetts, I truly believe that it is mainly my task to provide our students with books that can be a window to the world, which gives them a better understanding of what life is like for other children their age in other areas of the world, the struggles that they must endure, and the hope and resilience that they display. Our entire 6th grade reads A Long Walk to Water each year now and does some incredible activities based around the book, including fundraising for a well for a school in Kenya. Other books that became a focus of mine for showing the students what life is like over the bridge (to Cape Cod) are Listen, Slowly, The Red Pencil, Emmanuel’s Dream, One Plastic Bag, The Breadwinner series, Harvesting Hope, and many more. The students really enjoy these stories, and I love to hear their insights. Often times the students make connections to the stories, finding parts of stories that serve as mirrors as well.
When I purchase books for the students, I always seek out books that they will connect with and feel compelled to read because of that connection. Knowing students’ interests as far as sports, dancing, gaming, coding, the study of ancient civilizations, pets, crafts and numerous other topics help me to build a collection that represents my students. However, I often find that there are sides of students that I do not know until they come to check out a book. My students (as all of us) are multi-faceted individuals who think deeply and yearn to feel connected.
As I read the controversy surrounding Kate Messner’s new book The Seventh Wish, I knew that our library needed this book. Not only for the students who have unfortunately seen the devastating effects of addiction first hand, but for those students who haven’t as well. Unfortunately our quaint little seaside town is facing a serious opiate addiction problem. There are obituaries in the Cape Cod Times daily about someone who has lost their battle to addiction. They are the older siblings, moms, dads, aunts, uncles, neighbors, and friends of our students. It is an epidemic. So, sadly many of our students will be able to relate to this story on some level. Others may connect with Charlie’s love of Irish step dancing, her initial fear of ice fishing or her yearning for her crush to reciprocate her feelings.
As I read the story, I knew that my youngest daughter (14) would need to read this story as well. She has always been a huge fan of Kate Messner’s books, but sadly would be able to connect with Charlie’s feeling as her sister is placed in rehab. My oldest daughter was diagnosed with major depression last winter and was put into a psychiatric hospital for just over a week. Like Abby, my oldest daughter is a vivacious, talented and smart girl whose younger sister adores her. Many of the thoughts and feelings that Charlie shares about the treatment facility were echoes of what my daughter had said to us in December while her own sister received treatment. Although their stories are not the same, the connection is similar, and reading the book would allow my daughter some understanding that others have the same feelings and emotions in difficult situations. Not many people knew about what was happening in our family at the time, and I highly doubt that someone would have handed my daughter this book and told her that it might offer her some solace as well as entertainment during a difficult time.
Herein lies the crucial point. We, librarians, teachers, educators, may not always know what book will be the right book for a certain student at the time, but it is our job to make these books available. As I think back on my nine-year career (so far) as a library teacher, and my 13 years as a fifth grade teacher, I have often been surprised by the books my students needed. The harrowing tale of abuse in A Child Called It in our library has served at least one student I know of by giving her a network of supports to use (from the back of the book) to use when she felt she had nowhere else to turn. That book was the first step in her receiving the help she needed to get out of a horrible situation. Several years ago, while one student was advocating for the American Girl book The Care and Keeping of You be removed from our shelves, a student in another 5th grade class told us that reading the books is how she learned how to take care of her period (not covered in our Health curriculum until 6th grade and her home life was such that she did not feel comfortable asking her dad, who was a single parent). More recently, when George came to our shelves, some folks (students, teachers and parents) thought it might not be appropriate for our shelves. However, we purchased it and ran an evening event with the author. Many parents of grown transgender children came, as well as one of our students who used this event as a springboard for talking to his family. He is now in the process of transitioning, He reports that, most days, he feels confident and supported here because of the book.
In each of these examples, the students who benefited most from the books were not the ones who I had in mind when purchasing the item. For me, this realization is the best reason for not censoring books in schools. We never know who will need what book and when. For books with any content that might seem mature or “questionable” to some, I take my role as a library teacher to heart and I talk with the students about it during choosing and check out so that they are aware of what they are reading. I also tell my students to feel free to abandon a book if it is not a “right fit” for them on any level. However, my students need books to feel connected to the world and less isolated. In September, I am beginning my Enrichment Book Club with The Seventh Wish, hoping to share this wonderful story with my readers. Whether it serves as a window, a mirror, or both for my students, I know it will touch their hearts and bring about some amazing discussions!
Mrs. Abbott, Library Teacher, Morse Pond Middle School