While my library life is currently more focused on serving adult patrons and library management, my early library experience was in children’s services. I still read a lot of books published for younger readers. I also still really love working with younger library patrons when I get a chance to do so. Because I’ve spent a lot of time both academically and professionally thinking about how children’s brains develop and how they learn to read, I occasionally find myself spinning down fun little rabbit holes of children’s library theory. For the past month, I’ve been thinking about “hard” books and “easy” books.
Why did I put those adjectives in quotes? Let me explain:
I’m actually talking about two different things here.
The obvious hard/easy distinction is the reading level one. Yes, libraries contain materials at a variety of reading levels to serve the full breadth of our communities. This is most evident in our children’s spaces. Keep in mind, though, children are not the only people in our community who are learning to read: some of our neighbors who are adults aren’t fluent readers and wish to learn. Some of our neighbors can read another language fluently, but can’t yet read English fluently. We have materials to help all our patrons become better readers. One of the things that happens frequently in libraries that always makes me cringe a little is the word “easy” when used to describe ANY book in our children’s spaces. That word can be used in really helpful ways, but it can also be used in harmful ways. You only need to hear one older sibling say to a younger one in a very scornful tone: “That book is easy.” To understand how many different ways there are to deploy that particular word by and near emergent readers. Basically, it’s a non-helpful word in many cases. I usually find myself telling those who are working on their reading skills something like this: “Every book in this library—every single one—is hard to read before it becomes easy.” When a person is learning to read, there is nothing easy about some of the books we term “easy readers.” Nor is it helpful to coach an emerging reader by saying, “come on, you can do this, this is EASY.” Acknowledging that reading is hard can be helpful. Reading is an enormously complex cognitive process. It’s so complex, and our brains do so much amazingly cool work in the background, that we sometimes fail to notice how truly difficult learning to read is. So, that’s my little rant on the word easy. When you stop and think about it, pretty much everything is hard before it’s easy. It’s sometimes good to pause to remember this. Thank you for coming to my Ted Talk (as I hear the kids are saying these days).
But then there is this other part of the hard/easy distinction that’s also complex in a library setting. Here, I’m talking specifically about content. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I’ve recently read two “hard” middle grade books (middle grade is a publishing term for books for readers in fourth through sixth grades): Genesis Begins Again by Alicia Willams and Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. The former title is about colorism within the African American community. It deals with all kinds of emotional abuse, internalized racism, and, ultimately, self-harm. It is hard to read. The latter is about two sisters whose mother is incarcerated and end up living with a non-family-member who sexually abuses them. It is also hard to read. Very hard. So hard that every fiber of my being wants to live in a world where these books are not necessary. Sadly, we do not live in such a world. So, yes, we need these two books. We do. But the second question is: for whom? Because if we are only offering them to children who experience things of this nature so that they feel less alone, we are only using half of the superpowers of these two books. Books can be windows and they can be mirrors. Window books allow us to see the lived experience of others, mirrors allow us to see our lived experience reflected back to us. Window books give us empathy. Mirror books build self-esteem. Every reader needs both. I’m going to say that again because it’s super important: EVERY READER NEEDS BOTH. Yeah, I’m shouting so that even those in the back can hear. We should all be reading mirror and window books. Yes, all parents want to protect their children from “Bad Things,” from “Hard Things.” We want to protect children so they don’t know that these awful things happen so that they don’t have to be afraid that they might. But when we do that, we fail to build empathy for those who simply need these books as windows… all while remembering that there are kids who need these books as mirrors and that is 100% awful. No child should need such a mirror. But they do, and maybe we should all bear witness. Having the luxury of being able to avoid the conversation is what privilege is. It also completely bypasses the fact that kids do not always tell their adults that these things are happening to them. Because of this, we make incorrect assumptions about the relative window-y-ness and/or mirror-y-ness of such books. How do we approach such books with our children? Read them together, be there to answer questions, help them understand that awful things happen more often than we would like. Acknowledging that the world is hard can be helpful. Life isn’t easy. Sometimes it takes until we’re older before life gets hard, sometimes we are super aware it’s hard when we are still little. Our minds are resilient things and we can stretch them and grow them with difficult content. I believe that growing up with both empathy and esteem ultimately helps us to grow into better human beings. I officially hope that these books are windows for you. I do. If they are mirror books. I send you wishes of strength and resilience and the knowledge that these books were written by people who know how you feel.
If you are looking for mirror and window books for you or someone you love, we’ve got a service that will help you find them now, while you aren’t able to browse. Please fill out a form and one of our librarians will send you a curated list. Books like this hide in plain sight in our collections and they are so worthy of our love because they do a very hard job very well.
I guess that ended up being two Ted Talks. Thanks for coming to them!