In the background of my first Zoom conversation with Vera Ahiyya, I heard ambulance sirens passing and helicopters circling her Brooklyn apartment. It was early summer of 2020. Ambulances shuttled COVID patients to hospitals. Helicopters hovered over thousands of daily protesters, people demanding justice after the world watched George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery murdered. Everywhere one looked, people were fighting for breath.
Vera, however, was teaching kindergartners through a laptop video camera. During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, she read books to her students every day — as she always has — to help them feel connected to one another. She allowed them to ask questions and held space for conversation. Vera spoke to her students like the inquisitive, loving humans they are, never pulling away from topics that might make other adults squirm. Vera knows that kids are curious, and to silence their questions makes them anxious — especially during times when disruption to routine has become routine. And Vera knows that children’s books can be a safe, comfortable entry point for conversations — as well as a beautiful way for children of all backgrounds to learn about people who are both alike and different from them.
The relationship between an author and editor can be special, particularly when an author’s vision and an editor’s concept blend. When Vera and I first discussed her new book Rebellious Read Alouds, we dreamt of a book that would help teachers facilitate open conversations about “hushed topics” among young children. Vera wanted to showcase books, authors, stories, and characters that can help students see themselves and their classmates as fully developed humans. I wanted to publish a book that would make it as easy as possible for teachers to implement Vera’s ideas – something that offers support and structure for doing challenging work, a book you can reach for time and again.
As Vera wrote and I edited, we imagined classrooms full of gorgeous picture books written by people from historically marginalized groups, showcasing characters who look like the children in most US classrooms. Books about names and birthday parties and fun days out with grandparents — everyday things that children love to talk about — shared in a way that allows kids to explore who they are and where they come from in a way that celebrates all their rich diversity of background and experience.
Rebellious Read Alouds is that dream come true, offering simple, ready-to-go lessons for read alouds that can help build classroom community, support open questions and conversations, and instill a love of books, reading, and one another. We imagined teachers embracing and sharing diverse picture books, the shiny mirrors those books would hold in front of students and all the windows those books would open onto the world. In short, Rebellious Read Alouds offers a way forward.
What we didn’t realize when Vera started writing was that at the exact moment this book goes out into the world, schools around the country will be stepping backward. States and localities are passing legislation to limit what children are able to read and discuss in classrooms. This is effectively keeping children who identify as Black, Brown, Asian, Indigenous, LGBTQIA+ and any intersections of these communities, from seeing themselves and learning their histories in school.
There are parents and community members who don’t want their kids to know about the messy side of United States history. But what about those of us who want our White children to understand racial identity and history? What about we who wish our kids were reading more books by and about people of color? What about those of us who want our children to treat those who identify as anything on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum with love and respect? Don’t we get a say in all this?
Yes, we do. In fact, in a recent CBS News poll, more than 80% of those polled reject the idea of banning books about race or history. In fact, as I drafted this post, a bill in Indiana that would have greatly restricted what and how teachers can teach about history and race was struck down — because teachers and parents stood up. That’s news to hold tightly.
Those who want to ban books and limit learning are the true minority. They act from a place of fear. Teaching is an act of love. Sharing books by and about people from a variety of backgrounds is an act of love. And if acting in love is rebellious, now’s the time for rebellion.
There’s a quote on my wall attributed to Toni Morrison: “I’m not on the streets marching. What can I do where I am as an editor and a writer?” Many of the activists I know remind us to act within our spheres of influence. It’s not always possible to take to the streets, and we may feel powerless against the loud minority that’s pushing the hate-based rhetoric that drives recent legislation. Yet I ask you, what can you do where you are as an educator or as a parent?
Could it be that our most powerful activism today is simply to read a book to children that offers an open, loving forum for conversation about race, gender, family traditions, disabilities, and all the intersectionality that makes humanity beautiful? Yes. There’s not been a clearer moment in my lifetime for Rebellious Read Alouds.