At a recent library conference, I got the chance to see the amazing author and librarian John Schu deliver a remarkable keynote on the power of stories.
Flipping through childhood photos of himself - from kindergarten to fifth grade, year by year - Mr. Schu described his passion for reading, his growing anxiety over schoolwork, and the two years that he spent in a psychiatric hospital, fighting to recover from anorexia nervosa.
“Books saved me,” Schu told the crowd.
“And right now, there are people out there who want to get rid of the books that saved my life.”
There have been so many attacks on books over the past year and a half. Many books have been targeted for addressing issues like race or queer identities. But some - like the award-winning graphic novel “New Kid” by Jerry Craft - simply tell stories about kids that aren't white. Small but vocal groups all across the US have launched protests at school board meetings and pressured districts to remove hundreds of diverse books from school library shelves.
As a result of these attacks, authors, librarians, and teachers have all faced horrific abuse. And there’s no sign that things will get better anytime soon. In fact, things are probably to get much worse before they get better.
The next likely target for these book bans and challenges?
Books about mental health.
Social-emotional learning initiatives and mental health services for students have come under fire in recent months. This is despite the fact that the pandemic has highlighted - and in some cases, intensified - the anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts that many kids face. The groups that are pushing to end SEL in schools claim that mental health concerns are solely the domain of parents. They say that teachers and schools have no responsibility - and no authority - to address mental health issues in the classroom. Many take it a step further and claim that SEL is part of a progressive “woke” agenda aimed at brainwashing their children. Even the state of Florida - which adopted a lot of SEL initiatives following the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland - has since done a complete 180-degree turn.
According to CASEL (the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning), the purpose of Social-Emotional Learning, or SEL, is to help children to:
“develop healthy identities,
manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals,
feel and show empathy for others,
establish and maintain supportive relationships, and
make responsible and caring decisions.”
Opponents of SEL argue that schools just need to concentrate on teaching academics. But supporters of SEL point out that students aren't able to truly focus on learning if they are struggling with unresolved social and emotional issues.
Insisting that schools simply not talk about mental health relies on a dangerous assumption - that focusing on schoolwork will somehow magically insulate kids from developing mental health issues. This is a deficit-based, ableist idea that goes against everything we know about the human brain. Even worse, it assumes that children won’t suffer from mental health issues if we just don't tell them that they exist.
We know from experience that when children are left in the dark, they actually suffer more - because they don’t have the vocabulary to talk about what they’re feeling. Instead, they grow up believing that something is irreparably broken and wrong about them. And it sadly leads many kids to suffer even more deeply from the effects of depression and suicidal thoughts.
Far too many kids already suffer in silence.
We can’t let them be pushed even further toward the brink.
Campaigns to incite panic over ideas like Critical Race Theory, queer identities, and SEL are not organic concerns being raised by worried parents. These are well-orchestrated attacks from people who want to weaken public education. And when someone decides that they agree with these attacks, what they really want to ban is that feeling of being uncomfortable. That oftentimes overwhelming realization that the world is so much bigger, and so much more complicated, than you ever imagined.
Make no mistake: being able to deny those feelings of discomfort is a privilege.
For the majority of people in marginalized communities, those feelings can't be switched off. Those issues can’t be packed away and hidden from view. An awful lot of people don't get to make that kind of decision for themselves and their children. We can't just ignore feelings of discomfort, because existing within a system that wasn't built with someone like you in mind - it doesn't allow you to find comfort. It doesn’t allow you to flourish and rest and naturally find happiness. Most of us can't ignore the feeling of being small and powerless, because it infiltrates every aspect of our lives.
When parents push to deny their kids access to SEL - and access to books about mental health and race and queer topics - perhaps some of them do honestly believe that they're sparing their kids some measure of pain or confusion.
But there is ultimately no denying those feelings.
They come anyway.
And when kids are suffering, they need the vocabulary to talk about their emotions. They need strategies to cope, and they need hope - all things that they would have found in those SEL books and initiatives.
The end result of attacks on books and SEL is that children’s lives will become immeasurably more difficult.
Shielding kids from the uncomfortable realities of the world won't make them safer or happier. Because pain and discomfort are a part of life. But it is often when we are in the throes of that pain that we find so many wonderful things.
Who we really are.
What we believe.
And - most importantly - we often find a community of others who feel the same way that we do.
So we mustn't falter. Because our kids need us now, more than ever.
If you're able to, I implore you to do whatever you can to help. See the recommendations in my WNDB piece. And keep fighting the good fight.
Because these kids - kids like little Johnny Schumacher - so desperately need the hope that can be found in stories.
And as Mr. Schu reminded us at that library conference, the hope that we find in books can save lives.
Adriana L. White is an autistic school librarian, a former special education teacher, and a key member of our team at A Novel Mind. She holds a Master’s degree in Education as well as an MLIS. For more of Adriana's writing on autism, neurodiversity, and education, visit her at adrianalwhite.com