Photos of 4 books for young people, Rebel Girls, Boys who dare to be different, High Fives to the Boys, and Stories for kids who dare to be different

The Power of Seeing Ourselves in Books

Shopping in K-Mart, two books catch my eye:

‘Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls’ (Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo) and ‘Stories for Boys Who Dare to Be Different’ (Ben Brooks)

I critically peruse them, expecting them to be filled with bland, non-challenging examples of rebelliousness or making a difference, devoid of diverse races, genders, abilities, appearances, sexualities and so on. I’m genuinely surprised and appreciative at what I see. 

Back at school, the books sit on my desk for a while. I wasn’t exactly sure how to introduce them to the class but as so often happens, students can often show us the way.

A student asks if she can read one of the books. Watching her later, I notice her devouring the book, moving forwards and backwards through the book. Then she notices me, 

Mr Curran, this book is SOOOOOOOOOOO good.” 

She comes over, and points out a number of stories she likes. They’re all about Indigenous women in different countries, and she makes connections to her life and her community. I ask her if she’d like to tell the class about these stories and why she likes them. She does. I also share stories of other interesting people in the books.

Later that day, I’m looking for one of the books. It’s gone. I have a hunch where it is though. I write a note on the board, ‘Where is my Rebel Girls book?’

Next day, she smiles as she sees the question on the board. 

Mr Curran I took it home and read so many stories. I showed my Auntie and she read a lot too. “

She lights up as she passionately recalls the stories she read. Again she shares some with the class. 

Then it happens, a question that I’m asked everyday from this point on:

Mr Curran, can I read the Rebel Girls; book?”

“Mr Curran, can I read the Boys’ book?”

These two books are in hot demand. So much so that we have to allocate reading times for them. Otherwise there’s fights.

Students then start telling me:

Mr Curran, this is a good story. Can you read it to the class. “

A student suggests that we make a list of all the stories we like. And we do. 

And that story list grows and grows and grows.

I begin tuning in the stories that students recommend I read to the class.

A student who’s passionate about cartooning, tells me that when he grows up he’s going to invent a robot that protects him from bullies. He reminds me everyday to read a story about a boy who videos himself doing light sabre moves (ala Star Wars). A ‘friend’ shares the video with the world and he finds himself the target of bullies until one day….

Two girls who love dancing and gymnastics have been dissecting the books finding every story they can about their passion (Michaela Deprince, Misty Copeland, Simone Biles), and adding them to our whiteboard list.

A student who loves science and the world of amazing inventions, tells me I MUST read Nikola Tesla’s story to the class. Tesla made an earthquake machine, had a go at making a time machine, and was fascinated by electricity bolts. No wonder he loved him.

Living in the Tropics, most students are fascinated by the plethora of wildlife living here. The life-stories of Steve Irwin and David Attenborough are therefore high on the list of pages to be read.

One group appears to be in furious disagreement about something they’re reading.

We’re not allowed to say some of the words on this page.”

“What words are they?”

They point to ‘gay’ and ‘sexuality’.

I told them, “it’s okay to use these words as long as you’re being respectful of others, and are not using them to criticise or tease others.”

And so they tell me the story of Alan Turing’s life, in utter disbelief that being gay was against the law, and that he was treated so badly. They’re also amazed at what Turing had done for his country and contributed to the wider world of technology.

I highlight a number of stories of women taking courageous stands in a number of fields. Then one student asks me to read a story about a female pirate.

Someone pipes up, “you can’t have female pirates!”

“I think you’ll find we can,” I reply.

And so we read the story of Grace O Malley (1530-1603). The next day, another female pirate is found in the books, then another. Some students are determined to challenge the line, all pirates are male, and they’re winning big time. One female pirate (Jacquotte Delahaye) has a girlfriend (Anne Dieu-le-Veut). There’s a hush in the room as I read this.

Oh she’s lesbian,” says one student.

“Yes she might be lesbian,” I say.

There’s no reaction, it doesn’t seem to be an issue for them.

Another student says, “It doesn’t matter what you are or who you are as long as you’re happy.”

There’s a few nods, I ask them to repeat their line.

They said, “it doesn’t matter what you are or who you are as long as you’re happy.”

Then I add onto their sentence, “…and don’t deliberately hurt or disrespect others.”

Someone wonders whether these women know Grace O Malley, the other pirate we read about. “Maybe they were inspired by her.” They check the book to find out.

As the term progresses, I see more and more evidence of students using the books to find people like themselves, to find community, to find points of connection with their own interests and passions, and to see how other people responded to issues affecting them (my students) today like racism (Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks), sexism and poverty (Eufrozina Cruz).

With each story being one page duration, they’re easily read by most students. Those who struggle with the text have paired up with other students who read with them. Every reading time each book is in hot demand.

Back at K-Mart, I see two similar books – ‘High Five to the Boys: A Celebration of Ace Australian Men’, and ‘Stories for Kids who Dare to be Different’ (Ben Brooks) and add them to our class library. Needless to say they’re quickly snapped up each day, with students adding more and more stories to our whiteboard list.

Each day, through these short life stories, we interact with numerous:

  • time periods;
  • points of difference and identity markers;
  • challenges and hurdles, including
    structural issues like discrimination;
  • life issues and historical events.

And what’s fascinating and reassuring to me, is that students are seeking out stories that highlight the complexities of identity and life. They want to read about diversity-related issues that are either absent or given minimal coverage in our curriculum like racism, able-ism, sexism, gendered stereotypes and expectations. They want to know that they can be quirky, unusual, and overcome the obstacles and succeed. There’s so many possibilities when we’re able to see ourselves in our classroom library. Just have a look at the stories that were still on our list. What could we do with these life-stories?

  • Ameena Gurib-Fakim (President and Scientist)
  • Mary Edwards Walker (Surgeon)
  • Michelle De Prince (Ballerina)
  • David McAllister (Dancer)
  • Yaa Asantewaa (Warrior Queen)
  • Yusra Mardini (Swimmer)
  • Virginia Woolf (Writer)
  • Coco Chanel (Fashion Designer)
  • Claudia Ruggerini (Partisan)
  • Maya Gabeira (Surfer)
  • Cholita Climbers (Mountaineers)
  • Catherine The Great (Empress)
  • Eddie Aikau (Surfer)
  • Jaime Escalante (Maths Teacher)
  • Eddie Woo (Maths Teacher)
  • James Earl Jones (Actor)
  • Hamish and Andy (Comedians)
  • Johnathan Thurston (Rugby League Player)
  • Cosentino (Illusionist and Writer)
  • Andy Griffiths (Children’s Book Author)
  • Andy Thomas (Astronaut)
  • Emma Gonzalez (Activist)
  • Lady Godiva (Activist)
  • Ana Nzinga Mbande (Ruler)
  • Elizabeth of Hungary (Helping the poor)
  • Hermeto Pascal (Musician)
  • Andrea Bocelli (Singer)
  • Anandi Gopal Joshi (Doctor)
  • Hua Mulan (Soldier)
  • Anna Akhmatova (Poet)
  • Christine De Pizan (Writer)
  • Irena Sendler (Nurse)
  • Jessica Cox (“Differently Abled”)
  • Dorothy Dietrich (Escapologist)
  • Dr Seuss (Writer)
  • Ronda Rousey (Judoka and Wrestler)
List of recommendations for stories to read. Shows page numbers from the four different books discussed in this blogpost.
My students write the page numbers of stories they want me to read.
Image: Greg Curran 2018

Listen to the Rebel Girls Podcast

There’s actually a Rebel Girls Podcast in which stories from the book are read. Check it out.

Read More Literacy Posts

I’ve written a number of literacy-related posts on teaching English as an Additional Language utilising digital technologies.

Listen to my Education Podcast

On Pushing The Edge with Greg Curran, I chat to teachers, education leaders, and community leaders who aren’t content with the status quo in their fields. They’re standing up and speaking out, challenging the business as usual. Listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or other podcast apps.

Images of guests in Season 5 of Pushing The Edge podcast - Standing up for our students in challenging times
Guests in Season 5 of my Podcast