By Jennifer Slagus and Callie Hammond
There is something endlessly energizing about reading new things—whether it’s an anxiously-awaited release, a long-term tenant on your TBR-list, or the research of an emerging scholar (maybe we’re a little biased on that last one). Members of the CLA Student Committee are privileged to do just that: to read exciting books and write about all the exciting ways they can be used in classrooms to improve the lives and learning of our students. Much of our work as early career researchers highlights critical pieces of children’s literature that attend to the social, cultural, and political contexts of our real and literary worlds. We want to share a few recently published, award-winning books relevant to our doctoral research that highlight young peoples’ bravery and acts of resistance. All three are critical, impactful reads worth embedding in each of our classrooms in 2024.
I’m a huge fan of books by authors who share a lived reality with their characters. As a neurodivergent researcher, I strive to highlight middle grade novels that help to restory the perceptions of who neurodivergent people are (and who they’re allowed to be). There have been many fabulous authors in the past five years or so who have contributed books that do just that. But one author sticks out to me as an exceptional advocate for neurodivergent acceptance: Sally J. Pla. She’s an autistic middle grade author and the founder of A Novel Mind, a website that centers mental health and neurodiversity representation in children’s fiction. ANM has been a gold mine for my research. Not only does it feature a vibrant blog and a ton of educator resources, but it also has a database of over 1,150 children’s books featuring mental health and neurodiversity representation.
As a middle school teacher for ten years, I often utilized picturebooks to engage my students and to teach discrete skills, usually about grammar, and to illustrate writing techniques. These lessons had varying success—sometimes the 7th graders would be open to reading a picturebook, other times they rolled their eyes and refused to participate.
The most successful picturebooks that I ever brought into my classroom though had nothing to do with grammar or writing, they had to do with Anne Frank. I taught her diary to 6th graders who, unless they were readers themselves and had already discovered World War II fiction, had no knowledge of the Holocaust or how Jews were treated in the years preceding the war. My Anne Frank picturebook collection featured many books about Anne (there are a lot of them out there), but also books that explained significant parts of the war: the night of broken glass, Jewish resistance, children in concentration camps, children who also hid during the war, and many others.
Now, as a doctoral student in English education, I have come full circle to analyze the stories of Jewish female protagonists in YA novels about World War II, and representations of the Holocaust in picturebooks. Two of these picturebooks were published in 2023 and feature stories and information that our students need and can learn from. Both books were also just named Notable Books for a Global Society Award for 2024. As is fitting for a book about a traumatic historical event, both are nonfiction and have extensive back matter to explain the stories.
Utilizing both of these picturebooks in the classroom with older students can prep them for the heavier history or readings a teacher might soon introduce. They also provide picture evidence of hardships and bravery without being too macabre.
Jennifer Slagus is a doctoral candidate at Brock University in Ontario, Canada and Coordinator of Research & Instruction at the University of South Florida Libraries. Jennifer’s doctoral research focuses on representations of neurodivergence in twenty-first century middle grade fiction.
Callie Hammond is a doctoral student at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina. Callie’s doctoral research focuses on accessing historical knowledge when teaching literature that involves the Holocaust and using critical content analysis to analyze and understand representations of the Holocaust in children’s picturebooks.
CLA Student Committee Members