My colleague and I looked at each other as yet another workshop presenter at this past Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of NCTE (ALAN) conference referred to Rudine Sims Bishop’s groundbreaking essay, “Windows, Mirrors, and Sliding Glass Doors,” published 30 years ago. In her essay for the Horn Book “Why Stop at Windows and Mirrors: Children’s Book Prisms,” author Uma Krishnaswami asserts that:
“A prism can slow and bend the light that passes through it, splitting that light into its component colors. It can refract light in as many directions as the prism’s shape and surface planes allow. Similarly, books can disrupt and challenge ideas about diversity through multifaceted and intersecting identities, settings, cultural contexts, and histories. …Through the fictional world, they can make us question the assumptions and practices of our own real world.”
She makes the case that “Surely diverse texts, like glass are capable of operating in complex ways…” that “…refracting light—and readers’ expectations” offers a richer understanding of the potential for all readers who enter a book.
ALAN held its 2014 assembly In National Harbor, Maryland, its theme: “Is the Sky the Limit? Using Teen Literature to Forge Connections in a World Increasingly Without Boundaries.” We were there. The program announced “Celebrating Our True Identities” from 10:45-11:25, a panel focused on the experiences of transgender teens. My colleague and I looked at each other. We had the books in our ALAN giveaway box, but I seriously doubted whether I would “talk” them, “sell” them to my eighth graders once I returned to the affluent and bubble-like community in which I taught.
Then the panel began. Arin Anderson, author of The Not-So-Secret Life of a Trangender Teen sat beside his mother as the two of them shared their stories of Arin’s transition to male. Katie Hill spoke about her experiences and her book Rethinking Normal: A Memoir in Transition, and Susan Kuklin whose Transgender Teens Speak Out recounts the stories of six teens who are transgender or gender-neutral.
As I sat spellbound— and I experienced an epiphany. This is literature for all readers, riveting and important. These stories are for anyone who wishes to read them, ready to engage, there to “shed new light on the world for all readers” (Krishnaswami). My eyes were opened that day, and when I told my son about my wake-up, he responded, “I’m surprised it took you this long, mom. That’s one thing I learned in New Orleans pretty quickly. This world is wide open to everyone’s choices.”
This year’s ALAN box contained three titles that I avoided reading because, who knows? Residual book blurb bias? I have finished them in the last two weeks, (pandemic silver-lining), and can’t wait to feature them on my upcoming vlog Shelf Life. They are:
- Birthday by Meredith Russo
- We Are Lost and Found by Helene Dunbar
- The Infinite Noise by Lauren Shippen
They “…place diverse characters at these crucial intersections and give them the power to reframe their stories,” yes, but equally important, if they know they’re available, adolescents will choose them and love them. Minds, like light, can bend.