Getting your Vitamin B

By Amy Moran, Ph.D. and Kate Okeson 

Happy Gay Pride Month, NJEA family! It’s the last month of the school year, and we’re all thinking about activities and strategies that will help make these last weeks productive. We’re infusing LGBTQIA+ affirmation in our class culture and content and planning ways to rejuvenate for a successful return in September. 

Summer finds most of us orchestrating a combination of activities: summer jobs, time with family, traveling, hobbies, DIY home projects, and centering our own physical, mental and emotional wellness in the time away from the classroom. And many of us will pick up a good book to help us disappear from it all, bringing new ideas and ways of seeing the world as we turn pages or tap e-reader screens.  

Books, however, have caused scandals throughout time. In the 1950s, books like 1984 and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were banned from various schools, only to become canonical must-reads in school curricula in decades to follow. In the 1970s, it was Lord of the Rings and To Kill a Mockingbird, followed by The Grapes of Wrath and The Color Purple in the 1980s—all with the same outcome. By now, we’ve read and used many of these as tools for teaching critical literacy, whose vital skills prepare young people to engage with ideas not necessarily aligned with their own. 

Critical literacy centers on principles that are central to critical thinking: 

  1.  Disrupt taken-for-granted ways of thinking. 

  2.  Examine multiple viewpoints. 

  3.  Focus on sociopolitical issues. 

  4.  Take action and promote social justice. 

Book challenges—which aim to ban, remove or restrict books from circulation—are an attempted power flex designed to limit exposure to ideas and people that exist in marginalized spaces, question power structures and/or challenge the status quo. 

The book bans now sweeping across America center on books that explicitly address issues of race, sexual orientation, and gender identity and expression: some of the most important social justice issues of our time. Those book bans seek to eradicate visibility of LGBTQIA+ people, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) folks and others whose lives and experiences differ from those who’ve been published in the past.  

This is the opposite of American freedom, because it seeks to constrict free thinking, a long-championed hallmark of the American experience. Notably, in late 2023 a Washington Post investigation revealed that only 11 people were responsible for 60% of the book challenges in the 2021-22 school year.  

Because of this, we encourage you to spend your summer reading banned books! At “Rainbow Connection,” we understand that books are uniquely powerful cultural artifacts. A challenged or banned book is typically one that serves a most vital function: to offer us a view of often-unfamiliar parts of the world that we’re growing to understand and to help us see our place in them.  

By reading banned books, we gain insight into authentic experiences that others seek to silence, and we learn about the hypocrisy and manipulation of those preaching American freedoms whose actual motive is for others to have fewer freedoms than they enjoy. Moreover, we learn from Rudine Sims Bishop by using literature to mirror our own experiences, be the window we peer through into another way of life or become the door we use to join someone whose lived experience is not like our own.   

Amy Moran, Ph.D. and Kate Okeson (both she/her) are out queer educators, leaders and activists working to make education affirming and inclusive for all of their students and colleagues. Moran has taught middle school for 29 years and was a high school GSA adviser for 16 years. Okeson is a 26-year art educator, GSA adviser for 14 years, local association president, and co-founder/program director of Make it Better for Youth. 

Banned or not, stretch your reading to include unfamiliar authors and experiences that are part of any beloved genre! 

Kate is reading Survivor’s Guilt by (New Jersey’s own!) Robyn Gigl. “I love legal thrillers, and a series that sees LGBTQIA+ folks—and a main character!—in real and affirming ways is terrific.”  

Amy is reading Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe, The Cemetery of Untold Stories by Julia Alvarez, and Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay.