I’ve been working in school libraries for about 12 years now, and one of the highlights of my career is the student and staff multicultural book club I co-lead at one of my high schools. I feel lighter and more hopeful whenever I leave one of our meetings, consistently impressed by students’ thoughtfulness and kindness. The world can seem so bleak sometimes, but being around smart, outspoken young people is a nice antidote to discouragement and disillusionment.
The first session of the book club I ever hosted was in 2019. We read The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline, a dystopian book no one in my group enjoyed, including me. But despite not liking the book, we had fantastic conversations. Since I work in libraries and not classrooms, I only get a little time to talk with kids; I usually only see them in passing. The book club was the first time I had a chance to get to know students and witness them engage with a text. When I hear people say that kids don’t read anymore, I want to roll my eyes and bring them to a book club meeting.
When the pandemic shut down in-person schooling, we decided to try having the book club via Zoom. I was doubtful we’d have much success, but I’m happy to say how wrong I was. We had the most participation we’d ever had as we read and discussed Nic Stone’s Dear Martin, a powerful novel about police brutality and growing up as a young Black boy in predominantly white spaces. Even though we were faces on a computer screen, we were able to have important conversations about race, policing, violence, and friendship. Those are complicated topics, but students were always patient and understanding, even when there was disagreement. We had two more rounds of online club meetings before we got to meet in person again. As much as I love the in-person meetings, I look back on the online discussions with fondness and gratitude. They provided connection and community when we were desperate for both things.
When we returned to the school building, we read The Night Watchmen by Louise Erdrich. I don’t read much historical fiction, so this book stretched me and challenged me, which I appreciated. Erdrich is an incredibly gifted writer, deserving of the many accolades she’s received over the years. (I really love Shadow Tag and The Round House.) In our meetings, we talked about missing and endangered Native women and discussed why their cases are too often ignored. We pondered Native resettlement together and marveled at the events that inspired the book. The Night Watchmen is heavy and long, but the students consistently showed up with things to say.
We strive to read a variety of genres and viewpoints, so we decided to switch things up and read graphic novels for the next book club session. One of the books we read was When Stars Are Scattered, a middle grade book that tells the story of Omar Mohammed and his brother growing up in a Kenyan refugee camp. A local refugee came in and spoke to us about her experience in a camp. Her story was moving and powerful, and I remain grateful that students could hear someone speak who was directly affected by the subjects we’d been reading about.
Right now, we have two more meetings before we finish Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin, one of my favorite novels. Having the opportunity to discuss Baldwin’s brilliant writing with a group of thoughtful readers is a joy. The theme we’ve focused on throughout the novel is identity. How does your family shape who you become? Can a person really change? What happens when someone is hungry for power? We’ve examined these questions and many others over the past few weeks.
Along with our primary texts, we pull in outside readings and media, such as poems, essays, interviews, and videos. I love doing this because it’s nice to connect different cultures and formats with the books we’re discussing.
Over the years, many people have questioned why I like working at high schools. They think of teenagers as wild, rude, and uninterested in reading. But young people are some of the most thoughtful readers out there. They’re passionate, critical thinkers who speak their minds and ask great questions. It’s been an absolute joy being part of a community of kids and school staff who value literature and the benefits it brings to our lives.