School of Education’s Jennifer Buehler, Ph.D., Advocates for Diverse Books
Jennifer Buehler, Ph.D., associate professor of educational studies in the Saint Louis University School of Education, is passionate about young adult (YA) literature, which honors the questions and concerns of adolescence.
Her favorite YA novels feature teens grappling with questions of identity and agency in relation to political systems, historical events and cultural prejudice. She looks for books that are poignant, critical, innovative, substantive and ambitious.
Buehler has written about the history of the field, current developments regarding racial diversity in publishing, and approaches to teaching that bring out the complexity of YA literary texts. During her years hosting a YA lit podcast for the National Council of Teachers of English, she interviewed many of the field’s most distinguished authors including Laurie Halse Anderson, Judy Blume, and Walter Dean Myers.
As a former high school English teacher and now as a professor who teaches young adult literature to college students, Buehler knows firsthand that teachers have always needed to advocate for YA lit. In today’s political context, literature that centers people of color and LGBTQ protagonists is especially vulnerable to attack.
Diverse Books Make a Difference
In her undergraduate young adult literature class, Buehler finds that many of her students had to wait until college to read books where they found their identities and stories represented — or to gain exposure to lives unlike their own. Each time she teaches the YA lit course, students testify about the difference this literature makes in their understanding of themselves, other people and the wider world.
Their stories of discovering diverse YA lit in college remind us that today’s college students are still making up for the reading experiences they did not get to have in high school. For some students, the curriculum was silent on the topic of their identities. But many LGBTQ+ and BIPOC high school students today find that their identities are no longer being treated with silence. Instead, they are under attack.
Students have a right to encounter the same diversity in classroom texts that they encounter in their daily lives. With many universities centering diversity, equity and inclusion in their mission statements, reading diverse literature provides a foundation for the college experience. But the same books that mean so much to the college students in her care also appear on banned book lists across the country.
Educators Need Tools for Advocacy
Young adult literature is worth teaching because it is relevant, appealing, complex, and connected to the wider political and literary landscape. This has never been more true than now, in our current era of censorship.
Today, in the face of censorship, Buehler aims to share information with teachers to help them understand who and what is behind the current movement to ban books.
Understanding how book bans are connected to larger political forces is crucial for educators as we strategize ways to advocate for books that we know kids need.”Jennifer Buehler, Ph.D.
Conservative groups and their spokespeople have constructed a false narrative about diverse literature that flies in the face of what these books actually are and what they do for readers.
It is important to know that a small number of people, fueled by conservative political groups, are responsible for these challenges. The majority of parents oppose censorship. And yet the bans continue. Instead of teachers and librarians, it is would-be censors who currently dominate the conversation about what should be read and by whom. These individuals, and the groups that back them, often have not read the books they seek to ban and yet, in too many communities, they control the story.
Buehler believes that at this moment more than ever before, diverse books need advocates, and teachers of young adult literature need tools for the work of advocacy. Knowledgeable educators who are prepared to respond in the moment to attacks on diverse literature can help to take back the story about diverse books and the reasons we teach them.
Buehler points out that, “Whether the classroom space is in high school or college, and whether the audience is students, colleagues, administrators, parents, or the general public, talking points serve as a useful tool for educators who need to marshal support for YA lit in the curriculum.”
Talking Points Provide Guidance in the Conversation
According to Buehler, “Knowing why we teach diverse books is one thing; being ready to respond in the moment to attacks on diverse titles is also a necessary part of the work.” When those on the other side, even those who are well-intentioned, make the case for censorship of diverse books for young people, Buehler offers the following responses to provide a way to reframe the debate.
- On the topic of books that explore race and racism: Our society is racially diverse. Reading literature that centers people of color opens up important conversations about the complexity of identity and the ways race matters in daily life. Students of color benefit from seeing themselves represented in literature. White students also benefit from learning about lives that are different from their own.
- On the topic of literature that presents honest history: All young people need to grapple with the complexity of our shared history. An honest reckoning with the past produces informed citizens who can work toward a more equitable society. Older students often discover gaps in their education. Diverse literature, especially historical fiction and nonfiction, serves as a resource for students who want to learn what was left out of their textbooks.
- On the topic of sexual content in books for young people: Pornography is entirely different from literature that includes sex. Honest and nuanced depictions of sex provide teens with information that they want and need. Reading and discussing such content will foster healthier attitudes and lead to safer sexual behavior. It is crucial to note that pornography is being used as a term to describe books that include LGBTQ people or themes. This is irresponsible and dehumanizing. We must reject the misattribution of this term and the weaponization of LGBTQ identities.
- On the topic of today’s changing curriculum: The publishing world has changed. More people of color are writing books, and publishers are helping those books find readers. Students have a right to encounter the same diversity in classroom texts that they encounter in their daily lives. Also, many students cannot or do not read the classics. With access to diverse contemporary literature, more students will want to read, and more students will find school reading meaningful.
- On the topic of college readiness: Reading diverse literature provides a foundation for the college experience. Many universities center diversity, equity and inclusion in their mission statements. Academic programs and extracurricular organizations also prioritize diversity. Reading diverse literature helps students gain insight into the experiences of their future peers and readiness for the texts they will read in college.
Buehler reminds us that we need to defend diverse literature — especially young adult literature — on behalf of all students. She believes that with talking points to help us reframe the conversation, we will be more prepared for the work of advocacy.
For more information about this topic, contact Jennifer Buehler, Ph.D., at firstname.lastname@example.org .
For more information about Saint Louis University’s School of Education, visit our website or call 314-977-3292.