Seeing Ourselves in Literature

I was at my desk collecting writing assignments when Hannah, one of my sixth graders, walked over. “Mrs. Blok,” she said, “when are we going to read a book that has a girl as the main character?”

So far we had read The Phantom Tollbooth and King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table—both books I’d inherited when I took the sixth-grade English and history position. My heart sank when I heard her question because I had to face it: I had neglected to choose any new books featuring a female protagonist.

Books give us a wonderful opportunity both to see ourselves better and to enter into another’s world. I had given Hannah and the other girls opportunities to enter other worlds, but I had not given them an opportunity to see themselves. I had also taken away the boys’ opportunity to enter into another’s world—the world lived in by over half their classmates.

Hannah’s question has stayed with me, and now I often read middle-grade fiction with her in mind. I wanted to help my students connect with themselves and with others, to develop empathy and the ability to imagine what it’s like in someone else’s shoes. As Hannah pointed out, this would require broader reading. Her question led me to some fantastic novels with female main characters that have the potential to help her and her classmates relate to one another with more bravery and kindness.

Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina

Merci Suarez is a sixth grader who lives with her Cuban-American family in Florida. Her immediate and extended family live in three small side-by-side houses they call Las Casitas. Merci’s sixth grade year unfolds at a private school she attends on scholarship where she endures bullying because of her family’s lack of wealth. She also learns to deal with disappointment, family responsibility, and her grandpa’s illness. Merci encounters these challenges with a big heart and fierce loyalty to and appreciation for her family. Her story is a page turner! Plus, this book was just awarded the Newbery Medal, so you know it’s good.

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Melisa Blok is an editor at Baker Publishing Group. She taught sixth grade for one year and promptly moved on to editing and reading copious amounts of YA literature.