Summer 2020: A young reader in the Boogie Down Books community shares their school's summer reading list for grades 6-12 (pictured above). Protesters in cities across the world are demanding an end to state-sanctioned police violence against Black Americans, and Covid-19 has laid bare myriad racial inequities across our society, from health outcomes to education. Nevertheless, this school has not made any updates to its required summer reading. Once again students are required to read books entirely by white people written at least half a century ago, almost certainly too challenging for them to read independently at the assigned grade level to truly make deep meaning from without the support of a teacher or structured collaboration with classmates.
Here at Boogie Down Books, we try to assume the most generous explanation for this summer reading list that we can possibly imagine: that the educators behind it don't know about all of the other truly amazing books that their students would probably find much, much more enjoyable, relevant, and accessible. And as educators, we know that when someone doesn't know something, there's no other way forward than to help them learn.
We start thinking about all of the well-meaning educators out there who might not have the time or the resources to learn about all of the extraordinary books for young people that have been published more recently (i.e. this millennium). We could’ve stopped with just producing a recommended reading list, but we had already shared two lists for families and educators, and we knew that recommending books did not ensure that those books would actually get into students' hands and prompt conversations about race in American classrooms. Our core values as a business are joy, justice, and community, and we knew we needed to do more than publish lists in order to stay true to those values. So we start envisioning a reading community for educators to collaboratively explore contemporary young adult literature and nonfiction that centers the voices, hi(stories), and experiences of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). The result: Reading/Race, our new ten-month virtual reading series.
We find it hard to imagine conversations about texts in American classrooms that can't or shouldn't be connected–directly or indirectly–to race, but because whiteness is traditionally regarded as simply the norm rather than a distinct race, race is rarely foregrounded in discussions about white-centered texts. For example, do most students talk about race when they read The Catcher in the Rye? Or The Bell Jar? Or any of the other texts on that summer reading list? Not in our experience.
In contrast, the selected texts for Reading/Race invite multifaceted conversations about the rich and complex experiences of young people in this country. These books acknowledge and center the complex racial identities of the young people they’re about through depictions of celebration, jubilation, ancestry, and community, as well as discrimination and struggle. To read is to comprehend, interpret, discover, discern, understand, inspect, and study. That's what we're doing in this series.
To create this reading list, we pored through everything we've read over the past decade and gathered feedback from other antiracist educators. The eleven books we'll be discussing in Reading/Race are all written by and about members of BIPOC communities and for young adult readers, generally ages 12+. These books speak to young people's lives and to what is happening in the world around them right now while also celebrating their resilience, their ingenuity, and their potential. Featured genres include history, memoir, comics, short stories, realistic fiction, science fiction, and romance. Five of the titles feature major characters who identify as LGBTQ+. And with one exception, they were all published within the last two years. (The senior citizen of the group was published way back in 2012.)
The series begins with This Book is Anti-Racist: 20 Lessons on How to Wake Up, Take Action, and Do the Work by Tiffany Jewell and Aurelia Durand (nonfiction, 2020), a beautifully designed book that succinctly explores identity, defines terms, and provides practical advice for readers of all ages. If you attend only one session in Reading/Race, let it be our September 17 discussion of this book. It's a must-read.
We wanted to include Fresh Ink, edited by Lamar Giles (short fiction, 2018), early in the series because we know that many teachers start the school year with short stories, and this year doing so might be even more helpful for students reactivating their reading habits after a long break. But these are not the short stories of yore (we love "The Lottery" too but COME ON). As promised by the title, these short stories–plus a short graphic novel and a one-act play–by a range of authors provide fresh, contemporary, relevant takes on an old form.
The vital historical narratives and analysis articulated in An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States for Young People by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Jean Mendoza, and Debbie Reese (nonfiction, 2019) and Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You: A Remix of the National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi (nonfiction, 2020) serve as correctives to the content and format of corporately-produced history textbooks traditionally used in high school social studies classes. Both books provide historical frameworks to enrich our understandings of the fictional works we'll subsequently read.
March: Book 1 by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, & Nate Powell (graphic novel/memoir, 2013) and Victor LaValle’s Destroyer by Victor LaValle & Dietrich Smith (comic/science fiction, 2018) provide complementary examples of the power of comic books to illuminate complex themes and narratives and to inspire readers. Author, politician, and civil rights icon John Lewis was himself inspired by the 1957 comic book Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story.
Nearly half of the Reading/Race selected texts are compelling YA novels that explore the realities of adolescence in varied communities and cultures across the United States. These books depict teenagers successfully dealing with a wide spectrum of realistic milestones and challenges, including romantic relationships, coming out, death, family secrets, changing friendships, family incarceration, interracial dating, parental pressure, academic stress, and the college application process, as well as bullying, colorism, cultural genocide, ethnic stereotypes, and sexual assault. These books are joyful, heartbreaking, inspiring, and always illuminating. We dare you not to fall in love with each and every one of them:
Our facilitation team is comprised of veteran educators with extensive expertise in leading text-based discussions with adolescents and supporting adult learning. Come learn with them!
Rebekah Shoaf (she/her) is a New York City-based educational consultant and the founder and owner of Boogie Down Books. After teaching high school English for ten years, she served as a Teacher Development Coach with the NYC Department of Education, where she supported educators at middle and high schools in promoting rigorous, student-centered instruction. A Miami native, Rebekah is a lifelong bookworm, a graduate of the Chef's Training Program at the Natural Gourmet Institute, and an aunt to six budding bibliophiles. She believes that teaching young people to read well and eat well can change the world.
Ivelisse Ramos Brannon (she/her) has taught high school ELA and Composition in NYC for over twelve years. She is currently a teacher leader at Central Park East High School in East Harlem. For the last two years, Ivelisse’s action research and collaboration with other educators have focused on developing and expanding culturally and historically responsive and anti-racist pedagogy and practices. She received her BA in English with a minor in Political Science from Brooklyn College in 2008. In 2010, she was awarded her MST in Teaching from Fordham University, and in 2017, she earned her MS in Educational Leadership from Hunter University. Of all her teaching and learning experiences, Ivelisse finds that often the most challenging and rewarding ones take place at home with her two young sons, ages 9 and 2.
Xochitl Garcia works with STEM teachers and learners via education programming at the public radio show Science Friday. She taught STEM and special education in the Bronx for seven years in grades 6-12, where she worked on developing out youth participatory action research and curriculum that values student voice and interests. Xochitl never lost her love of YA and is excited about increasing diversity in this genre.
Amanda Torres (she/her) has taught English at Central Park East High School for nine years. She also co-facilitates Class of Consciousness, a student-led social justice club at her school that organizes around issues of race, gender, and class. When this Bronx resident isn’t working on anti-racist and culturally and historically responsive curriculum, you can catch her reading on the 4 train or hanging out with her spirited six-year-old son and protest partner, Dre. Amanda graduated from Barnard College in 2012 with a major in English and a minor in Education. She received her MA in Curriculum and Teaching from Teachers College, Columbia University in 2017.
Eric is an educator in the Mott Haven neighborhood in the Bronx where he also lives. A native New Yorker born and raised in the Bronx via Harlem, Eric loves Maurice Sendak's children's books; Where the Wild Things Are and Chicken Soup with Rice are amongst his favorites. Eric is currently an immersionist (deeply involved mentally) and relishes non-fiction adventures through thinkers like James Baldwin, James Cone, and Martha S. Jones. Some of Eric's other immersions are: sneakers, whiskey, and comics.
J. Miguel is an educator based in the Bronx. A born and raised New York City native, his first book was Harold and the Purple Crayon and grew into a love of fantasy. When not teaching, you can find him searching for his next cup of coffee, writing, or laughing and walking with friends.
Maziel Concepcion has been an educator with the New York City Department of Education for 16 years. Her favorite grade to teach is eighth grade, which is where she spent the bulk of her teaching career. To have a larger reach, Maziel decided to shift her focus to coaching seven years ago. She currently is a literacy consultant for middle schools across the city. She is a native New Yorker (Harlem! Stand up!) and is a product of the New York City public school system.