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Bibliotherapy: What if we read more? (guest post by Amianne Bailey)

Because this is one of the best posts ever about aliteracy, and by an amazing friend of mine, we are re-running it today for Reluctant Readers week
This post originally appeared on TLT on December 20, 2012

“If every person in this room made it a rule that wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder than is necessary – the world really would be a better place. And if you do this, if you act just a little kinder than is necessary, someone else, somewhere, someday, may recognize in you, in every single one of you, the face of God.” –From Wonder by RJ Palacio

I spent Friday, December 14, 2012, with all 757 students of my school in our first annual Polar Express day in the library. This is what I posted as my Facebook status after hearing the gut-wrenching news of the Connecticutshootings:

In light of the horrific events in CT today, I am reluctant to share this post. But I want you all to know that in an elementary school in Mesquite, TX, there was JOY today. We had 38 classes listen to The Polar Express and served 807 cups of hot chocolate. Smiles, joy, and gratitude swirled around my heart today, and I don’t feel guilty for these blessings. My fellow educators & parents, we must continue to teach and love our children with passion & joy & energy. When we live in fear, evil wins. Don’t let evil win.

One of my best days as an educator is juxtaposed with one of the worst days in our nation’s recent history. That incongruity does not go unnoticed.  

As an elementary school librarian, I cannot wrap my brain around this inexplicable tragedy. As a mother, I cannot fathom the grief and loss of these parents. Like so many of us, I feel powerless. I just want to DO something for our hurting world. In the face of horrific tragedies, I try not to ask “why?”  I don’t think we are capable of truly understanding such an evil act. Instead, I try to ask “HOW?” How can I be a better person in my little corner of the universe? How can I make a difference in someone’s life? How can I be a light in the darkness?

Amianne Bailey is a School Librarian
This is her Red Reading Chair

While countless people take to Twitter and fire off on Facebook, admonishing our country’s gun laws, mental health system, and absence of God in our public schools as reasons for the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary, I cringe. I cringe at our knee-jerk quickness to cast blame. I shudder at our self-righteous reaction to always look for a reason. Why can’t we mourn the loss of so many innocent lives and reach out to one another with love? Why can’t we step into the shoes of these grieving, hurting families and understand that they do not need reasons right now; they need our prayers; they need our compassion; they need our support.

The events of 2012 made me keenly aware of our society’s lack of compassion. From the Chic-Fil-A debacle to the embittered election, it seems that everyone wants to scream their opinion without giving much thought to how it will fall on the hearts of others. And it hasn’t even been ONE WEEK since the horrific killings in Connecticut, and people are already blasting theories and accusations via social media. The great irony is that in a world more connected than ever through the power of technology, we are truly disconnected from the hearts of humanity.

As a librarian, I can’t help but wonder–if we were a nation of readers, would our actions and our reactions be a bit kinder—a bit gentler?  Rather than condemn would we comfort? Rather than hurl opinions would we try to heal the hurt? Rather than spew hatred would we extend a hand in hope?

Honestly, my book-loving mind can’t help but connect our society’s lack of empathy to the fact that we are an alliterate nation. So many people can read, but they simply choose not to. Before you blow me off as some smug librarian, let me state my case. Like any librarian worth her weight in books, I have evidence to support my opinion.

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.”
George R.R. Martin, A Dance With Dragons

Not Illiteracy, but Aliteracy
I recently read several articles that cite studies to support that “reading fiction improves understanding of others,” (The Guardian). An article in Forbes also points to a study that shows “reading fiction actually increases people’s emotional intelligence: their accurate awareness of themselves and others, and their ability to create positive relationships with others based on managing their own reactions” (Forbes). In “The Importance of Reading for All of Us”, Anna Leahy states, “When we read about fictional characters, we become better at understanding real people and real situations” (HuffPost). So reading not only benefits our brains, it is also good for our hearts.
aliteracy – when a person has the skills necessary for reading, but chooses not to

Over the years, I have read the works of JimTrelease, Kelly Gallagher, and Stephen Layne concerning the problem of aliteracy in our nation, and I can’t help but wonder if our lack of empathy is tied to our lack of a reading habit?

“We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel… is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become.”
Ursula K. Le Guin

Some of you might view this as hypocritical because I am just another voice entering the fray. I am not trying to blame our lack of reading culture for this senseless act. I am not naïve enough to suggest that reading more books would have prevented this tragedy from happening. I am not searching for a reason; I am offering an important observation–reading fiction makes us more aware and sensitive to the feelings of others. And I think we can all agree that our world needs kinder, more compassionate people in it. Even though it might sound trite, I think reading fiction can help us become a more empathetic, caring nation– to see past ourselves and into the hearts of others.

“Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.”
Joyce Carol Oates

With the new year approaching, let’s all make a pledge to turn off our computers and tvs and read more fiction. What can that hurt? I am a firm believer that there is a book out there for every person. If you dislike reading, it’s because you haven’t found the right book. And as a self-proclaimed book-pusher, I want to make a recommendation—Wonder by RJ Palacio. It’s truly a book for every age and gender, and it would be PERFECT to read aloud to your children at bedtime. (The importance of the bedtime reading ritual is another post for another day.) This book can teach us all so much about what it truly means to consider things from someone else’s point of view; what it means to “be kinder than necessary.”

Yes, I am suggesting that books can change us. Why do you think Hitler burned books? Why do you think the Taliban fought to the death to prevent books from falling into the hands of the citizens of Afghanistan? It’s because books have the power to soften hearts, to open minds, to silence judgment. They have the power to increase empathy for our fellow human beings. And I think that our world could use more softened hearts and open minds and less judgment and blame.

“In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you.”
Mortimer Jerome Adler

Here we are, a nation that enjoys the freedom to read and has access to books in every city, yet so many choose not to take advantage of this life-changing gift. That’s another irony that I can’t ignore.

As a life-long reader, I turn to books for escape. I turn to books for comfort. I turn to books to connect with the human race. If there ever was a time for Americans to turn to books, it is now.
“We read to know that we are not alone.”
Amianne suggests Wonder as a good place to start reading and working on developing empathy.  What other titles would you recommend? Leave us a note in the comments.
Read more from Amianne Bailey:
You can also read my thoughts on last week’s events and mental health:
Read YA author Sean Beaudoin’s post about Newtown at Salon.com:
Also, please read these amazong posts from YA author Robison Wells who talks about his struggles with mental health issues:
While I don’t think there is any immediate answer to the problem, and no one single cause, I like Amianne’s answer . . . let’s read more.  Let’s step into the shoes of another person through the pages of a book and learn to open our hearts.  Let’s choose kindness.

Atticus was Right: Guest post by Amianne Bailey (Autism and Libraries)

Atticus Was Right

*Names have been changed to protect the truly awesome.  This is part of our ongoing focus on autism and libraries.  Current statistics indicate that 1 out of 88 children are diagnosed with Autism.  This is a story about how books can make a difference.

I’m one of THOSE librarians. After I read a book that moves me, I can’t help but tell everyone I know about it. Yes, I’m a book pusher; I own it, but there are worse things to be obnoxious about. Last March I read Out of my Mindby Sharon Draper and immediately started shouting its praise from the rooftops. I blogged about it, and I went so far as to call it “required reading for all of humanity.” I pushed it into the hands of students and told any teacher who would listen to me about Melody’s story, especially the fifth grade teachers at my school; I encouraged them to read it aloud to their classes. They did because they are THOSE kinds of teachers.

Fast forward to a year later. It is a typical Wednesday in the Shaw library. There is a break between my morning and afternoon rush of classes, so kids drop by to checkout books on their own. A group of sixth grade boys huddle near the nonfiction while a cluster of girls congregate near the display of recommended chapter books. The beep-beep of the scanner serenades us as I go from group to group chatting with and checking on the kids. It’s my own little slice of library heaven.

Kendrick slides through the library door and greets me with a head nod that says, “What’s up, Mrs. Bailey?”

Oh, Kendrick. Seeing him saunter in warms my heart even though he is not a librarian’s typical dream reader. He is a repeat fifth grader who suffers from a bad reputation and worse attitude to match. In the line-up of our students, Kendrick is not our most stellar. Simply put, Kendrick is one of THOSE kids.

But when Kendrick is removed from his peers—from the pressure of acting like his reputation—he is an absolute delight. In my three years at Shaw Elementary, I have come to know Kendrick as a secret reader who always greets me with a slow smile and has never given me a second of grief. I had the privilege of tutoring him last year for the TAKS reading test, and I watched him cry—yes, cry—about his anxiety over that test. Luckily, Kendrick’s second time in fifth grade has been much more successful than his first go-round.  Lately, I have been slipping him my personal hardcover copies of Catching Fire and Mockingjay, and he has devoured both in record time and returned them to me in pristine condition.  

As Kendrick ambles over to the sports chapter books, Josh enters the library with his teacher quick at his heels. Josh is clearly upset, assuming his familiar pose of hands covering ears. Josh is a student in our autistic class, and it is obvious that he is on a mission that might result in a meltdown.

“Hi, Josh! Hi, Mrs. Collins!  How can I help you?” I greet them cheerfully.  

“Josh is trying to tell me something. He wants something in this library, and I need to figure out what it is.” I did not miss the desperation in Mrs. Collins’ voice.

“Of course. Let me help you. I know Josh likes car books so let me pull some for him and see if that will make him happy.” I snap into librarian search mode.

Mrs. Collins and I begin to pull car books and show them to Josh, but his moaning grows increasingly louder. Josh is teetering between agitation and meltdown, and Mrs. Collins and I feel perilously close to the edge. I watch as tears begin to form in Josh’s eyes as he rocks back and forth and moans while holding his head in his hands. We are not cutting it with the car books.

At this point, I notice Kendrick out of the corner of my eye. He is the only other student left in the library. I think the others scrambled out due to the awkwardness of the moment. Kendrick is watching us try to help Josh with a look of concern on his face. Pure genuine concern.

I smile at Kendrick to assure him that everything is okay even though it is not. “Mrs. Bailey, what is wrong with Josh?” Kendrick asks.

“Well, Josh has a hard time communicating with us. He has autism, and that means it’s hard for him to explain what he wants, so we have to guess until we figure it out.” My meager attempt to explain the autistic mind sounds silly and trite.

Kendrick looks me straight in the eye and says, “That’s like Out of my Mind. Just like Melody. She couldn’t communicate either until she got that special computer. I can’t imagine that. Can I help Josh find some books?”

An immediate lump forms in my throat. Mrs. Collins hears Kendrick and her mouth drops open. She has read Out of my Mind, as well (she is a merciless victim of my book pushing habit), so she knows Melody’s story. She is also very familiar with the antics of Kendrick, so she gets the magnitude of this moment.

“Of course, Kendrick. That would be awesome.” I manage to squeak out.

Kendrick pulls some books off the shelf and takes them over to Josh. I don’t even know what they are because I am trying to quickly wipe the tears from my eyes without the boys noticing. Mrs. Collins takes the books from Kendrick; he smiles and swaggers out of the library in that cool Kendrick way. Mrs. Collins shows the books to Josh, and he instantly calms down—Kendrick’s picks seem to appease him—and he walks out of the library much calmer, a look of contentment on his sweet face. Mission accomplished.

I stand in the middle of my empty library amazed at what I just witnessed: the power of books exemplified.

Out of my Mind is not a book about autism. But it is a book about the power of tolerance, acceptance, and empathy in a cruel, judgmental world. Kendrick may not be successful in school, but he can make the connection between life and a book. He can put himself in the shoes of an autistic kid and want to try to help him rather than scurry away or worse—bully him. If there was a test for empathy, Kendrick would pass with flying colors.

Atticus Finch was right. In my all-time favorite book To Kill a Mockingbird, he tells Scout, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view-until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Books do that for people. They give us that “skin-slippage” experience of being able to stand in someone else’s shoes and consider their perspective. Hearing Out of my Mind read aloud by Mr. Holgram, his fabulous, caring teacher, gave Kendrick the opportunity to experience what it would be like to have a disability that crippled his ability to communicate. Kendrick saw Josh in that library and made the connection. He felt empathy. And a book made it all possible.

It’s April so that means ‘tis the season for state-mandated tests in Texas. Educators across our great state are stressed to the breaking point with the impending pressures of the STAAR test. But this one magical moment in my library brought it all back into perspective for me. I am not in this business to make a kid like Kendrick be a really great test taker. Honestly, he is not, and I’m not sure if he ever will be. I am in this business to help kids like Kendrick—all kids—become better human beings by pushing the power of books. I now consider Kendrick one of THOSE kids—one of the most stellar ones that I know.

Librarians are on a mission to change the world—one book—one person—at a time. I am proud to be one of THOSE librarians.

This MG Moment brought to you by the letter A and the number awesome. You know, if Awesome were a number. Amianne Bailey is in her third year as the librarian at Shaw Elementary in Mesquite, Texas. Before she found her “dream job” in the library, she worked in the trenches as a high school English teacher for eleven years. She loves to read (obviously), spend time with her family, and watch sports. You can visit her blog at http://mywesternsky.blogspot.com/.