By Gia Ruiz
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was furloughed from my part-time Reference/Youth Services Librarian Job. As the protests started, I kept thinking about how education is activism, and as a librarian, what my part should be. If we are systematically flawed, then we need to change the system. If people still participate in white supremacy or anti-Semitism or any oppression that subordinates a group of people beneath another, then how have we as educators and parents failed?
With all that in mind, I started a social justice book club with a group of six middle schoolers. A few are classmates of my twelve-year-old son. Some are the children of friends. I sent out a nervous email to their parents asking if their kids would be interested in taking a deeper dive into the issues they are hearing about in the news. What’s at the root of it? Who else is being harmed? How can we recognize injustice, and more importantly, how can we stop it?
The book club has been a success. The kids are engaged. We meet once a month at a park, socially distanced with masks on, and we discuss a different topic using books written by diverse authors. The kids have gone on to lead discussions in their classrooms and among their peers about different social justice issues.
If you’re a parent, librarian, or educator, you might want to start your own social justice book club. What could that look like for you?
If you’re a parent/educator who wants to teach your kid about social justice issues
First, you might ask yourself these questions:
- What areas do I know I need to learn more about? Use this opportunity to learn together with your child/student(s). You’ll find it so rewarding, and they’ll be impressed that you’re willing to admit there are ways you can also be better.
- Are there ideas that you could introduce to your child to make them feel seen? For example, what about books that teach Black children to be proud of their hair? Or books that teach children about pronouns to help them choose their own pronouns or understand they can change the pronouns they use later on?
- Is there something your child/student is curious about? Don’t forget to ask. For children, talking and learning about social justice issues can feel intimidating. Let them guide this journey.
- My child/student is only *insert any age.* Are there books for them? This is a trick question. At every reading level, there are books addressing social justice issues. There are board books about anti-racism. There are picture books about gender inequality. There are middle-grade books about trans kids. And if you have a teenager, then you are definitely spoiled for choice because Young Adult books are experiencing a renaissance of diverse authors telling their stories.
- Do books in a social justice book club only need to be about social justice? No. Reading children’s books that teach empathy, or just represent a diverse array of characters in everyday life, can have just as much of an impact in shaping their worldview as a book that specifically aims to educate.
- Is my child/student too young to learn about racism, LGBTQ+ rights, gender inequality, or consent? No. These issues affect people of all ages, so why should they be limited to books for certain age groups?
Pick a different topic every month. This is a manageable approach. Consider starting with a book that teaches American History through a critical lens. Understanding that the foundation of the country was built on a racist system will make understanding systemic racism easier. Examples of these books are Stamped: Racism, Anti-Racism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi or What the Eagle Sees: Indigenous Stories of Renewal and Rebellion by Eldon Yellowhorn and Kathy Lowinger.
If you’re a librarian who wants to start a social justice book club
I’ve thought a lot about how I’d translate this to something actionable in my own library when I return, or how this could be done virtually.
Youth Librarians: Consider a social justice-themed storytime once a month with a different topic, or include a social justice-themed book in your regular storytime. Parents often ask me what books to read to their kids about different issues. As a librarian, you can help foster this journey.
For example, have a month where you read a picture book that introduces the concept of consent targeted at younger children. Books that teach that you can say no when someone hugs you when you don’t want to be hugged. Examples include Will Ladybug Hug? by Hilary Leung or Don’t Touch My Hair! by Sharee Miller. Introducing these concepts early can solidify what children understand as acceptable behavior.
Teen Librarians: You can follow the same course as youth librarians. Whether you’re in a virtual library situation or in person, consider picking a different topic every month (January: American History of Racism, February: Indigenous Rights, March: Consent, etc.). Don’t feel obligated to follow the calendar of awareness months and cultural observances. Show that these are year-round topics.
Try giving teens the questions that you’re going to talk about in advance, perhaps on the physical or digital flier advertising your book group. This will engage teens early and excite their parents about what they’ll be learning.
- Ask them if they can identify, for example, a microaggression or gender inequality. Define the terms in advance.
- Let book club members know some of the questions you might ask during a book club. This allows teens to feel less intimidated and better prepared.
- Repeat terminology (such as ‘anti-racism’ or ‘Islamophobia’) throughout the books you choose, which gives the kids more confidence in their daily life to know for certain when an injustice is being perpetrated. Identifying injustice is crucial to becoming a socially conscious person.
Make sure you are doing a little research into the history of whatever town or city you live in. Is there a complicated history that your community has historically glossed over that is creating issues today?
In my book club, I try to find books that discuss the injustices that have happened or continue to happen in Los Angeles. This looks at racist policies against Black and Latinx people, and the subjugation of Indigenous people; for example Indian No More by Charlene Willing McManis about the Indian Relocation Program, Jazz Owls: A Novel of the Zoot Suit Riots by Margarita Engle, or The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed about the riots after the Rodney King trial.
The ways you could approach a social justice book club are endless. Do what feels organic for you, your situation, and your child(ren) or student(s).
Gia Ruiz is an Indigenous-Mexican-Panamanian mom, librarian, activist, and artist living in Los Angeles.