To order Captain Awesome or to not order Captain Awesome?
Anyone who has merely brushed by me in the past two weeks can’t help but hear me obsess over the book order that the elementary school is submitting to support the adoption of reading workshop next year. We are committed to finding high-interest literature written at an accessible level. In short, we want books that kids can’t bear to put down.
Captain Awesome initially ticks all the boxes: an easy to read, action packed series with enough lowbrow humor to make the average 8-year-old pretty happy. It seems like an obvious choice. At the same time, I keep coming back to the fact that the front cover depicts a white superhero with a black sidekick. I can’t help but ask myself, “How many books have we ordered with person of color as the main character accompanied by a white sidekick?”
As a school blessed with resources, I wonder what messages our resources give about global citizenship, an equitable world, and the roles assigned to different demographic groups?
This question requires our book ordering criteria to narrow. Can we find accessible, high-interest literature that reflects our student population? Can our students see themselves in the books they encounter at ISB? Do our resources reinforce or challenge racial, cultural or gender stereotypes?
My partner in crime, Paul Wong, recently discovered that a popular series of sports fiction pitched the books differently depending on the gender of the protagonist. Titles featuring males reflected victory and domination: Touch Down Triumph or Quarterback Comeback, where titles featuring female protagonists centered around feelings: Gymnastic Jitters or Panic in the Pool. Sorry boys, if you have a case of the jitters – you won’t find male characters to help you explore those feelings.
Without Paul’s eyes for the discrepancy between male and female sports fiction, I never would have picked up on these themes. Often, we are so accustomed to seeing white superheroes or female damsels in distress that we might not even notice the messages subtly being imparted to our students.
Two years back, I was surprised to realize that every read-aloud novel I shared with my students – Because of Winn Dixie, Clementine, and Gooney Bird Greene– featured a white female protagonist and was written by a white female author. As a white female, I didn’t specifically choose these books for their whiteness or their femaleness – but I identified with them and could relate to the characters presented. Could the same be said by all my students? How does it feel when the person in power – the teacher – presents resources that exclude a large portion of the student body? What message does it send to kids about who we care about? What message does it send about who writes books? Am I propagating systemic racism in my choice of texts?
Once we start to notice that which was previously invisible, we become newly accountable. A first step for me as an educator is to evaluate the resources that kids encounter every day. Do my students see themselves in the literature that they read? Do they encounter authors with similar cultural or ethnic backgrounds? What story do the pictures on the walls and in the halls tell them about what it means to be female, male, gay, a person of color, a person of a certain faith, a mathematician, or a scientist?
A classroom resource audit can help make the invisible more visible. Who do our books represent? What messages can be gleaned from what hangs on the walls? Nothing engages students more than asking them to take an evaluative role on the inclusiveness of the classroom environment.
The good news is that there is a lot of great literature out there. From the Yasmin series, where a Pakistani American second grade student gets into scraps like any other seven-year-old, to Alvin Ho, a Chinese American boy who struggles with anxiety, there exists a treasure trove of literature that matches the messages we say every day: You can be anything. You can feel anything. You are important. You belong.
And no, I decided not to order Captain Awesome.
For more reading, check out Tricia Ebarvia’s blog, “How Inclusive is Your Literacy Classroom Really?