The title of my blog, Teaching Social Justice with Children’s Books, did not seem dangerous or problematic when I chose it several years ago, but it does today. Parents, school boards, and government representatives across the country are demanding that children’s and young adult books which address certain aspects of a person’s identity be removed from the bookshelves of classrooms and school libraries. Teaching students about “social justice” is being equated to indoctrination. I think about social justice as meaning fair treatment in society, and fairness used to be something that was encouraged in classrooms. As many young students would be able to tell you, fair is not always equal. They know that some of their classmates might need additional support in the classroom to meet grade level goals. They know that a student with diabetes might need to have an extra snack to treat a low blood sugar. My intent is not to diminish the challenge of creating a fair or just society. I simply want to point out that knowledge, or at least acknowledgement, is a necessary first step.
By removing books from schools and intimidating teachers so they do not address inequalities due to race or sex, one goal seems to be to eliminate knowledge of the existence of difference so that things can stay the same. Dealing with inequality is harder to do when we pretend that those with different experiences simply do not exist. And if that goal is not achievable, at least we can suppress the perspectives of people who do not fit into the dominant societal identity groups. In Olivia A. Cole’s The Truth About White Lies, available for all to purchase in March 2022, the danger of suppressing understanding is powerfully revealed.
Shania’s family has secrets. In fact, as her grandmother tells her right before passing away, her family tells lies. Shania is conflicted about learning what her grandmother meant by this. Her grandmother was one of her favorite people in the world and they had wonderful times together. But when Shania starts finding notes from her grandmother in a Farmer’s Almanac, she decides to look into the history of the community where her grandmother grew up. This knowledge might be painful, but it could help Shania move forward.
Paired with the lies of Shania’s family are the secrets within her elite, prep school. Shania is new to Bard Academy, but she is befriended by one of the most popular girls in school, Catherine Tane. Catherine seems wild and funny, very different from Shania, which is exciting. At a party, Shania meets Prescott Tane, Catherine’s brother. He is handsome and intelligent and he compliments her constantly on her beauty and insight. Falling in love with Prescott seems right, even inevitable. That is, until she meets Ben, another Tane sibling who does not attend Bard.
Ben is connected to a completely different social group than Prescott and Catherine. They all seem to know something about Prescott that they just won’t explain. More secrets that Shania cannot access. More lies that Shania doesn’t want to uncover. Not knowing is so much easier, so much more comfortable and stable. But when those secrets and lies are piled so high that they can’t help but fall, Shania is buried so deeply that she might not be able to escape.
In The Truth About White Lies, Cole has provided us with a mirror to examine our own actions. Shania is not alone in feeling uncomfortable with the truth. She is certainly not the only person who does not want to encounter hard truths about people she loves and respects. This novel demonstrates what can happen when we simply ignore our history. Change will always come. Knowledge is what empowers us to make different choices so that the changes we see make life better for everyone.
Identity 4: I express pride and confidence in my identity without perceiving or treating anyone else as inferior.
Diversity 10: I understand that diversity includes the impact of unequal power relations on the development of group identities and cultures.
Justice 14: I am aware of the advantages and disadvantages I have in society because of my membership in different identity groups, and I know how this has affected my life.
Action 19: I stand up to exclusion, prejudice and discrimination, even when it’s not popular or easy or when no one else does.