By Melissa Hart
Recently, my seventh grader and I curled up together on the couch in our pajamas with a bowl of popcorn between us to attack her schoolwork. On the TV, the New Zealand comedy Hunt for the Wilderpeople about a boy of Māori descent and his foster father on the run from authorities who want to lock the kid up. Beside us, a paperback of Jason Reynolds’ novel Patina about a Black tween runner living apart from her birth mother and navigating a new biracial home.
Later, we’d look at the history of foster care in the U.S., dating back to 1636, and study New Zealand’s Māori population briefly before returning to Reynolds’ novel and a story assignment asking my daughter—biracial, adopted from foster care—to make connections between his story and hers.
Years before COVID-19 required families to shelter-in-place, I homeschooled my child using a curriculum I designed month-to-month around diverse contemporary children’s and young adult novels. We chose books like Patina that reflected her personal experience, and books that expanded her understanding of social issues—novels like Angela Cervantes’ Gaby Lost and Found about a tween whose mother is deported to Honduras.
The kid lit published today offers parents a powerful jumping-off point for homeschooling families. Aside from the fact that reading for pleasure reduces anxiety and increases our compassion for self and others, fiction and memoir for young people lend itself beautifully to creative study across disciplines; study that brings children and parents together and provides talking points for dinner table conversation and Zoom meetings with classmates and friends.
Consider Angie Thomas’s young adult novel The Hate U Give, about a Black teen who watches a white police officer kill her friend.
My daughter and I read the novel, watched and compared the film version, researched the history of the Black Lives Matter movement, and leaped back in time to learn about the Civil Rights movement. We looked at the history of African American art, at famous Black scientists, watched Hidden Figures, and I quickly customized her math word problems so that they’d relate to what she’d been studying.
It sounds highly organized and time-consuming to plan, right? It wasn’t.
Veteran homeschooling parents know it’s cool to stay flexible about curriculum day to day, following a kid’s natural curiosity. Maybe your tween is reading Celia C. Pérez’s The First Rule of Punk and decides to devote a day to create a ‘zine like the Mexican American protagonist, Malú. And maybe the next day, there’s a deep dive into the history of punk music, followed by taco making and band practice with friends via Google hangouts. It’s all good, inspired by beautifully-written novels that give our kids insight into diverse people, settings, and cultures.
My daughter attends a neighborhood school now—or did before the coronavirus shut its doors indefinitely. But it’s been easy to slip back into our old habit of reading together and exploring topics related to our books. We’ve got big plans to study Alexandra Diaz’s The Only Road, about two kids from Guatemala forced by gang threat to make the long, dangerous journey to the U.S.
We’re going to revisit The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Alison Levy about four adopted boys and their two dads because I grew up with two moms. And I’m just so thrilled to see this representation and give my daughter a history of same-sex parenting in our country.
She’s already read Justina Chen’s young adult novel Lovely, Dark, and Deep about a girl forced to stay inside because of a life-threatening allergy to sunlight. Fortunately, we’re still allowed to walk and hike and bike as a family in our city, and so my daughter and I can go outside and talk about what aspects of the natural world Chen’s protagonist might be missing. We can brainstorm activities these heroines might do inside, and the ways in which they can connect with their friends and peers using technology, a topic that hits close to home for so many kids today.
The concept of homeschooling may feel absolutely overwhelming for both young people and their parents right now, and for teachers used to brick and mortar classrooms, as well. But stories can be salvation. Carefully chosen to reflect a kid’s experiences and interests, they command attention and self-discovery and investigation of the world around us.
And—let’s face it—during an era of intense anxiety, they give us an excuse to cuddle up together on the couch and watch movies.
You can find Better with Books: 500 Diverse Novels to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens by Melissa Hart here.
Melissa Hart is the author of Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens (Sasquatch, 2019) and the award-winning middle-grade novel Avenging the Owl. She lives with her family in Oregon. Visit her website here.