Back when we could still host in-person programs, my book club for fourth to sixth graders met to discuss Jerry Craft’s New Kid. I was confident they were going to like it – it was about to win the Newbery (among other awards), and I had been on a hot streak of choosing books my book club adored (not to brag!). I opened our book club discussion the same way I always do: by asking who liked the book and who didn’t, and by reminding them that it’s okay not to enjoy a book we read – they won’t hurt my feelings by expressing their opinions. This opening question lets me discretely check on their reading comprehension without feeling too much like a quiz.
I was surprised when almost all my kids said they didn’t like the book – but I was downright shocked when I asked them to talk about why.
“The book is racist,” one of my students said immediately. Several other kids in our club started nodding in agreement.
In case you’re not familiar with New Kid, here’s a very simplified summary: it’s a graphic novel about an African American student attending a private school that’s predominately white. The main character, and also the supporting characters, encounter a lot of microaggressions throughout the story, and author Jerry Craft is clearly writing to try and make these understandable to young readers.
I was completely floored. “Racist” was the last possible thing I would have expected my book clubbers to say, given the way the book directly addresses the racism and prejudice the characters experience. After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I started asking them some gently probing questions to see if I could understand.
“What are you thinking of when you say it’s racist?”
My students were quick to offer examples: the way the teachers call the black kids by the wrong name. The way the librarian assumes the black kids will only like certain kinds of books. The times different characters from different races get stereotyped – assuming a black character can run fast, or that a Nicaraguan character is Mexican.
I was starting to see what was happening here.
“Is the book racist,” I asked them, “or are there characters in the story saying and doing racist things?”
The more we talked, the more I realized that my kids were facing a difficult problem in their reading comprehension. They had definitely identified the book’s theme of racism, but they had ascribed that racism to the book overall, and missed out on the ways the book was condemning those racist behaviors. I don’t think this is the fault of book, but rather a misstep in their growth as critical thinkers.
“I didn’t like the parts where the kids got called by the wrong names,” one my book clubbers said. “It was mean.”
“It was sad,” said another.
“Mean and sad. I don’t like books like that.”
One feeling that came out very strongly in our talk was that the racist events in the book made my students uncomfortable, upset, or sad, and they didn’t enjoy reading something that made them feel that way. For some of the kids in my book club, they’ve experienced prejudice themselves, and didn’t enjoy encountering it in books they wanted to read for fun. Some of them had expectations about graphic novels – that if a book was a graphic novel, it would only be fun and funny – and that when those expectations were thwarted, their first reaction was to dislike the book, instead of to do some thinking about why the author chose to write it that way. Discovering this gave us the chance to discuss: why might it be important to read books that can make us uncomfortable sometimes? What can someone learn from New Kid that they didn’t know before? How do the pictures help us understand the story?
While all of my students are big readers, they are still growing in their ability to think critically about what they read, and more importantly, in their ability to evaluate and consider their own opinions critically. This is one reason why it’s so valuable to have an adult who can discuss the books a child is reading with the child – a teacher, a caregiver, a librarian, anyone! Other great books we’ve read that tackle issues of racism and prejudice include Kelly Yang’s Front Desk, Grace Lin’s Dumpling Days, and Hena Khan’s Amina’s Voice.
By the end of book club, we had talked about the serious parts of New Kid, but also the funny parts, the art, the unique characters. Most of my students ended our talk expressing a bit more appreciation for the book – though they also asked for some action and adventure in our next book. Can do!
Today’s guest blogger is Chelsey Roos. Chelsey has been a member of ALSC’s Advocacy and Legislation committee, and is currently a children’s librarian at the Castro Valley Branch of the Alameda County Library.
This blog relates to ALSC Core Competencies of I. Commitment to Client Group, III. Programming Skills, IV. Knowledge, Curation, and Management of Materials