ALA Virtual Conference 2020

Healing Reading Trauma at #alavirtual20

In the presentation Healing Reading Trauma: Rebuilding a Love of Reading Through Libraries for liberation (presented by the awesome Julie Stivers and Julia Torres), I learned the term “reading trauma.” What is reading trauma, you might ask? When a student has such a poor experience with their literacy education, that they come to feel shamed, stupid, and unrepresented in the world of books, then they’ve experienced reading trauma that can negatively affect not just their entire education, but their self-image as well.

What causes reading trauma? According to Stivers and Torres, some of the causes include:

  • High-stakes testing, which encourages students not to engage authentically with their education, but to instead “perform” a false form of scholarship that seeks to simply regurgitate the answers wanted by the test givers.
  • A fixation on “classics,” most of which are written by dead, white, straight, cis-gendered men. Many of these classics both reinforce racist and patriarchal norms, and do not represent the students reading them.
  • Trauma-centered narratives. How many books about characters of color in your collection are about trauma like slavery, racism, and abuse? How many are about joy?
  • Shaming of reading choices, from comics to manga to fanfiction. If students are told that what they like to read does not “count,” it’s not surprising that they will disengage and lose their identities as readers.
  • Leveling, which limits students both because it narrowly defines what is the “correct” book for them, and because it relies only on what books a computer system has scored and ranked (which rarely includes graphic novels and fewer contemporary writers).

What can we do to interrupt and repair reading trauma?

  • Remember that we are here to see our students and patrons, not save them. They don’t need us to swoop in and rescue them, they need us to see them for who they are.
  • Stop acting as a gatekeeper. Can you empower your students to take control of the library? Can you genrefy your collection to make it easier to navigate? Do students have a say in what is purchased for the collection?
  • Read what your students are reading. Reading The Hate U Give is not enough for you to understand what your black students are going through if you’re a white librarian. Saying graphic novels count as real reading is only lip-service if you’re not reading those graphic novels yourself.
  • Prioritize students and patrons over books. In the presentation, they quoted Dr. Kim Parker, who said, “The question becomes, ‘Do we care about the book or do we care about the reader?’” Evaluate your polices to see what’s really being prioritized. Getting rid of fines, check-out limits, security gates, and punitive policies allow you to act from a mindset of abundance and support.

Reading trauma can begin as early as kindergarten, if students don’t see themselves represented (joyfully!) in the books around them. Whether we are working in school or public libraries, we need to step in at every level to interrupt this trauma and help our students rebuild their identities as readers.

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