"We as educators have the responsibility of building a class library that helps all children feel represented and connected."
This past fall, at the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Convention in Baltimore, I moderated a panel on the importance of using “differently-brained” fiction in the classroom. Along with authors Chris Baron (All of Me), Brandy Colbert (The Only Black Girls in Town, The Revolution of Birdie Randolph), Jen Petro-Roy (P.S. I Miss You, Good Enough), and Elly Swartz (Give and Take, Smart Cookie), we highlighted the need for these types of mental-health/neurodiversity books to become more present in schools. Our panel was well attended and received, signaling to us that most of our colleagues also wanted to help make this happen.
According to Ohio State Professor of Education Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, “Literature transforms human experience, and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.”* If we are to truly serve our students, it is key that they see themselves in the literature that we offer them.
A lot of work has been done to make class and school libraries more inclusive over the past few years. “Diverse books” typically include those from different races, cultures, socio-economic classes, and genders. But we must not forget to represent children with mental health differences and the neurodiverse. This allows for even more inclusivity as students from this population can see that they are not alone. Likewise, it offers other children the opportunity to see what life is like for those facing such challenges.
The very latest CDC data (2019) shows “one in six U.S. children aged 2 to 8 years has a diagnosed mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder.” Why, then, would educators not have books that represent them in their classrooms?
From my experience, the historical availability of fiction in this category has been fairly limited. Only over the past several years have more stories that touch upon autism, OCD, eating disorders, ADHD, etc. been published, and thankfully, more are coming. As educators, we now need to make sure they get into our students’ hands. I’ll never forget the first time I gave Stanley Will Probably Be Fine to a student who suffered from anxiety. He devoured the book in a short amount of time and proudly proclaimed, “This character is exactly like me -- and look what he did!” Is there a better way for a child to recognize his differences and learn that he can overcome them? I don’t think so.
During our NCTE presentation, many educators said they felt adding books like this is important. Some, though, went on to admit they were hesitant out of fear of parent or administrative backlash. As one who is lucky enough to work in a district that does not engage in this type of below the surface censorship, I felt for them. Titles such as Finding Perfect, Kat Greene Comes Clean, The Goldfish Boy, and The Science of Breakable Things are regularly checked out of my class library. When I ask students what they like about them, most tell me that they enjoy learning about how the characters overcome their struggles. I also hear that they want to know more about the conditions that challenge them. This often results in student-led research and further discussions. Ultimately, it ends with students building the key skills of empathy and compassion, which carry over into their day-to-day lives.
We as educators have the responsibility of building a class library that helps all children feel represented and connected. By incorporating texts that do so, we are providing a gift that will forever change how our students function in the real world. I strongly encourage taking the time to analyze your classroom collection and see what’s missing. You’ll find wonderful resources here on A Novel Mind to help you get started.
And your students will thank you for it.
Tried and True Reads from Miss Mancini’s 5th Grade Classroom Library:
Finding Perfect - Elly Swartz (OCD)
Kat Greene Comes Clean - Melissa Roske (OCD in parent)
Stanley Will Probably Be Fine - Sally J. Pla (anxiety, sensory issues)
The Science of Breakable Things - Tae Keller (depression in parent)
Guts - Raina Telgemeier (anxiety)
The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole - Michelle Cuevas (grief/depression)
Forget Me Not - Ellie Terry (Tourette Syndrome)
The Goldfish Boy - Lisa Thompson (OCD/agoraphobia)
Best Friends - Shannon Hale (social anxiety)
NICOLE MANCINI teaches fifth grade English Language Arts at Bedminster Township School District. She graduated Washington College in 2002 as a triple major in English, education, and gender studies. She earned a Masters of Science in Education from Monmouth University and has a Reading Specialist certification. Nicole has presented various workshops both in and out of New Jersey on technology, building students' passion for reading, motivating reluctant readers, battling mental health stigmas through books, and engagement. She has been an advocate for using diverse and neurodiverse books in the classroom for several years and has worked with authors from around the country to help educators learn more about this topic.
In addition, Nicole is a freelance writer, a member of the International Literacy Association and National Council of Teachers of English, a board member of the New Jersey Literacy Association, and an ambassador for Flipgrid. She has been published on the Nerdy Book Club blog and Teaching Channel, appeared on the Books Between Podcast and My Disney Class Podcast, and was featured on the Educator Spotlight column for MG Book Village. Most recently, Nicole was appointed as the Educator Collaborator for the My Messy Muse podcast. Nicole also organizes and appears on author panels for both children and adults in local bookstores.
*Sims Bishop, R. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives, 1(3), ix–xi.