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Karen Buley: Diverse books are more important now than ever

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Years after I learned my older son’s sexual orientation, I penned a 2017 blog post: “Queer is not a bad word.” Reflecting on my early parenting years, I wrote, “I wish I had known to look for LGBTQIA books. That acronym was not in my vocabulary back then, but acceptance, empathy, love, and tolerance were.”

Recently, book bans and efforts to prohibit schools from discussing sexual orientation, gender identity, and race have proliferated. Diverse books are more important now than ever.

At a House Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties meeting May 19 to “examine the ongoing efforts to prohibit discussion in K-12 classrooms about American history, race, and LGBTQ+ issues, and to punish teachers who violate vague and discriminatory state laws by discussing these topics,” a letter, signed by more than 1,300 children’s literature authors, was read into the record. The bulk of signatures were gathered in less than 48 hours, and many others wanted to sign but missed the deadline.

The authors wrote: “Reading stories that reflect the diversity of our world builds empathy and respect for everyone’s humanity. At a time when our country is experiencing an alarming rise in hate crimes, we should be searching for ways to increase empathy and compassion at every turn.”

Individual authors are speaking out as well. New York Times bestselling author Jason Reynolds is also the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. A pair of books Reynolds coauthored, "Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You" and "All American Boys," were two of 2020’s most challenged books.

In a June 4 CNN article, he said, “There’s no better place for a young person to engage and wrestle with ideas that may or may not be their own than a book. These stories are meant to be playgrounds for ideas, playgrounds for debate and discourse. Books don’t brainwash. They represent ideas. You have a right to disagree with those ideas. Adults aren’t afraid of books. They’re afraid of the conversations young people bring home.”

In 2015, Ashley Hope Pérez’s historical novel, "Out of Darkness," was published to critical acclaim. Challenges and bans began six years later, making it one of the Top 10 Most Challenged Books in 2021. When asked why she thought her novel was received so differently in 2015, Pérez replied: “Back then, a national conversation about racism and radicalized violence was finally taking hold. Now, though, there is a vocal minority of the U.S. population that wants to shut down — and literally outlaw — discussion of racism as a historical and current reality. And books that represent diverse characters and their experiences have become targets in a proxy war. It’s not about the books; it’s about power: the power to tell stories and the power to silence them.”

Award-winning author Shaun David Hutchinson’s memoir, "Brave Face," and novel "We Are the Ants" have been challenged and banned in Texas and elsewhere. In response to his father’s support of Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education” bill, commonly known as the "Don’t Say Gay" bill, he created a poignant “Dear Dad…” video.

“The truth of the matter is that I’m not interested in battling parents,” Hutchinson wrote in an email. “Queer youth experience suicide and homelessness at rates far higher than non-queer youth, so the only fight I’m concerned with is providing honest and positive representation and convincing teens who identify as LGBTQIA+ that they are worthy of love, that they are seen, that their lives are valuable and have meaning. I can’t imagine why any adult would stand in the way of something that could save a young person’s life."

I can’t either.

Karen Buley is a Missoula author and library assistant at Hellgate High School.

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