When I first started teaching, I had one class where I was the only white face in the room. Our curriculum spanned everything from Edgar Allen Poe and Jack London to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. There were times when I was the expert and other times when I couldn’t muster a single thing to say.
So I listened instead.
I let my kids teach me.
One of the most important lessons I learned was the value of giving everyone an opportunity to see themselves and see someone else in what they read. There’s a long overdue conversation happening now about how to make society anti-racist. It’s going to take a lot of deliberate action, reflection, un-learning, and re-learning.
And I also think it’s going to take some windows and mirrors.
In a time when many people are looking for experts to find the right information to share, there’s another strategy we can use. It’s simple, and it’s powerful. It’s about making room for other stories.
Here’s how I do it in my classroom:
Why Windows & Mirrors Matter
Decades ago, the SEED Project published a piece by Emily Style. It introduced the idea that the curriculum in our schools is a window to somewhere else. In addition to letting kids see the world, they should also see themselves reflected back.
Not during a special week. Not doing a special month.
We’ve already seen what happens when that isn’t the case. We are standing at the cusp of curricula that has been whitewashed and made colorblind, curricula that trumpeted a single story for far too long.
One of the most powerful ways to combat that is to make room for other stories to be told.
We don’t want to not see difference. Instead, we want to learn to see it, embrace it, and value it. If it makes you uncomfortable, that’s OK. We tell students all the time that growth happens outside of their comfort zones. That means we, as adults, have to get comfortable spending time there, too.
One of the most remarkable parts about books is they do the talking for us–if we let them.
Middle Reader & YA Titles
At the start of this past school year, I dedicated the most prominent spot in my classroom to house my windows and mirrors titles. I let my students know that they might find themselves reflected in the books. They might also find their fellow classmates or others they haven’t met before.
I also promise my students that these are quality reads by quality authors. This isn’t simply about checking a diversity box. Nor is this about overemphasizing differences to the point of caricature.
My titles are as diverse as I can make them, and they touch on everything I can get my book-buying hands on: socio-economic status, race ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, body type, neurodiversity, and (dis)ability.
Now, I want to specifically highlight some of the best middle reader and YA titles that my students enjoyed this past school year that feature Black lives.
Sharon M. Draper is a masterful storyteller, and Blended is one example of that. Isabella is caught between two worlds as her parents separate. Their existences couldn’t be more different, and she’s pulled between the two. As a tween, she knows her life is blended–but she’s not quite sure what to make of it. For much of the story, she navigates standard middle school fair: friends and frenemies, divorce and remarriage.
Isabella also happens to be biracial, which adds another layer of complexity to the story. Especially when there’s an incident at school that no one expects. The tensions crescendo into a heart-wrenching ending.
Piecing Me Together
Piecing Me Together won the Coretta Scott King Award in 2018, and it’s definitely more of a YA book than a middle reader title. Jade is a gifted student who attends an elite school. Despite her talents, many people in her life treat her like she is in need of fixing. She’s paired with a mentor to get a shot a full-ride scholarship that she can’t afford to pass up–quite literally. And yet, it seems that Jade is the one that really ends up teaching her mentor.
This graphic novel is scooping up every award I can think of and for good reason. New Kid is fantastic. It’s honest, it’s funny, and it’s beautifully illustrated. Though I am terrible at reading graphic novels (I have a hard time appreciating the nuance of the art — I like to just read the words and move on — and therefore miss much of the story), I found myself enthralled by this book.
Jordan transfers to a private school for middle school. This book perfectly captures the fish-out-water feeling that comes with changing schools and moving up grades. The complexity of the book is heightened since Jordan is one of the only students of color at his new school. Thankfully, he has his art, his video games, and cadre of unlikely friends to make sense of it all.
All American Boys
When I book talk this novel by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, I know it’s not going to come back on my shelf until the end of the school year. Students are that captivated by it.
Rashad and Quinn go to high school together. They aren’t friends, but they know of each other. Their worlds collide one night at a corner bodega. Rashad is there to buy some chips, and he’s mistaken for a shoplifter by a police officer. Rashad tries to explain, but his explanation is taken as resisting arrest. Quinn is the only human witness, and what happens next draws a dividing line through their city.
Students recognize the parallels between this book and current events, and they also have an opportunity to see how much more complicated and devastating these stories are than a news headline reveal.
Ghost – Track series
Jason Reynolds is a literary darling by all accounts. There’s no character he can’t write and no topic he won’t touch, including a middle school favorite genre: sports! Ghost is the first book in his Track series, and it’s a sports book with real depth.
Gone are the caricatures of typical middle reader and young adult books in the same genre. What readers are left with is a track star who would much rather play basketball. Ghost is about to learn that no matter how fast he is, he can’t outrun the choices he makes.
When students fall in love with this book, it couldn’t be easier to keep them reading. There are three more books in the series that tell the stories of other teens on the team.
The Rock & The River
Historical fiction typically makes teens groan because it can feel like a dressed-up history textbook. That’s not the case here. Kekla Magoon sets The Rock and The River in Chicago in the heart of the 1968 riots after Martin Luther King’s assassination.
The book pays tribute to King and his legacy, but also brings a entire community to life, showing its fear, frustration, grief, and strength. Magoon also spends time putting a spotlight on the Black Panthers, which fascinates my students because that part of history is all but omitted from textbooks. The separation of time between the 60s and now makes this book a powerful segue that also buys people (including their teacher!) a bit of breathing room.
If you’re looking for where to go next, Magoon also writes captivating, compelling, and heartbreaking realistic fiction that is undoubtedly present-day history in the making.
This book in verse (poetry!) is my number-one go-to book to recommend to students. It’s a sports book, but it’s so much more than that. The Crossover is so lyrical that the words almost leap off the page — they are typeset to “bounce” on some pages.
Josh and Jordan Bell are inseparable, and that makes sense. After all, they are twins. But when JB starts to spend time with a girl, a divide shows up between the brothers. Dinner time (and almost every other time) is tense, and their dad layers on the pressure to be a top athlete like he was. There’s a twist ending that few readers see coming, and it leaves kids begging to read more.
(Good news: There’s a prequel that kids also gobble up!)
Where Do I Find Inexpensive and Diverse Books?
I’ve written about where to find cheap books in the past. But it is important to understand that curating a selection of windows and mirrors titles takes time, effort, and money. Quality is far more important than quantity. One truly good book can ripple through a classroom; whereas a whole shelf full of outdated, corny, or stereotypical titles can quickly transform into dust collectors that never budge from their post.
Sometimes, I get lucky at used book sales. Scholastic Books is also very committed to featuring diverse titles and partnered with We Need Diverse Books. Other times, I head to my local bookshop and pick up new copies. It’s true that my dollars don’t go nearly as far there. But I believe in supporting BIPOC authors and I believe in offering quality literature to keep my students coming back for more.
You can also work with your school or district library if you are fortunate enough to have that resource (we do!). There are also plenty of opportunities to write grants. Scholastic sponsors one each year, and I know many districts also partner with community organizations that accept grant proposals. Additionally, you can also explore options like Go Fund Me and Donors Choose, though I encourage you to do your due diligence beforehand (our district interprets our contract in a way that prevents us from participating in either of these platforms).
Finally, you can also spread the word within your community. Encourage your public library to spotlight diverse titles year round. Share favorite books on social media. The more we can get windows and mirrors titles in circulation, the more likely they are to show in places like Free Little Libraries and land in the hands of kids.
Final Thoughts on Windows and Mirrors On Your Bookshelf
Maybe you’re a teacher, maybe you’re a parent. Maybe you’re an aunt, uncle, or neighbor. There are important conversations to be had and important work to be done. But none of us has to do it alone.
So much of that work can start with a book, a fresh voice, a new perspective. You don’t have to worry about always having the right words or any words. Let someone else speak for you.
Storytelling is powerful. If we make it a point to welcome diversity onto our bookshelves, we enrich our own lives. We see how unique we all are. Struggles are laid bare and strengths are revealed. There’s beauty in difference and there’s strength there, too. We just have to intentionally make room for more stories and more voices.
Black lives matter and it’s time our bookshelves reflect that.
So Tell Me…Whether you’re a teacher, a parent, a relative, or someone who simply knows how fantastic middle reader/YA books are and you read them yourself, do you have any recommendations?