Across 47 Maine schools, the diversity of characters and experiences in books just got wider thanks to a Rockland organization’s campaign to distribute more inclusive books to school libraries.
Through the “Read the Rainbow” campaign, OUT Maine ― which works to support LGBTQ youth in Maine ― has purchased over 900 books on LGBTQ themes for school libraries across the state and is currently working on fundraising to respond to additional requests from schools. The campaign was launched in response to recent efforts across the country and in Maine to remove certain books — often those representing LGBTQ perspectives — from school libraries.
“There’s just a big part of the pendulum swinging back in terms of acceptance, so it’s very easy to get discouraged. So what we really wanted to do was give people a very concrete way to counter that, especially those of us who found this book banning approach very disturbing in a country that values freedom of expression and is truly based on equality and fairness for all. said OUT Maine general manager Jeanne Dooley.
Since the campaign launched in October, OUT Maine has received requests for 149 book sets from 75 schools in nearly every county in Maine. With the donations they’ve received so far, the organization has been able to order enough books to meet 47 of those requests, according to Dooley.
OUT Maine has organized book sets―each with about 20 books―for four different grades, kindergarten through second, third through fifth, sixth through eighth, and ninth through high school, that schools can apply through the program.
The books represent a range of LGBTQ-related themes that vary by grade level, with sets for younger grade levels “starting with kindness and respect for others and experiencing people who are different from you,” a said Dooley. “Then, of course, as they progress through the higher grades, these people face more complex issues. So each of the book seats is really designed to recognize the different stages of development young people are in so that they get a little more complex with each set of books.
About 20% of students in Maine schools identify as LGBTQ or question their sexual orientation and gender identity, according to the 2019 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey.
While it varies from school to school, LGBTQ perspectives are underrepresented in the books available to students in school libraries, according to Dooley, who said it’s critical that all students see themselves in content and program they know.
“When you don’t see yourself reflected around you in your books, in the images you see and in the language you see, it just makes you feel more and more different and when you’re young it’s hard to to be different,” Dooley said.
Greely High School Librarian Heather Perkinson, president-elect of the Maine Association of School Libraries, said her students frequently request books with LGBTQ themes, especially ones that depict a range of experiences. Instead of just books that deal with adversity or difficulties faced by people of diverse backgrounds or identities, Perkinson said students increasingly want books with diverse characters with normal experiences. which offer exciting intrigues.
Having more inclusive books in school libraries is not just a benefit for the students who see themselves reflected in those books, but for the student population as a whole, Dooley and Perkinson said.
“It’s important not just for kids to share the experiences of the various characters, it’s important for all of our kids to develop empathy by experiencing different perspectives,” Perkinson said. “That’s what reading offers. It allows for other points of view. »
Dooley said efforts across the country, and even some challenges here in Maine, to get books — often on LGBTQ themes — banned from school libraries are damaging, divisive and demeaning students who see themselves represented in these books.
But the response OUT Maine has received from donors helping to buy the books and the number of schools requesting them gives Dooley hope.
“We didn’t know how it was going to play out [out], we weren’t sure if people would be willing to donate money, we weren’t sure if libraries would be, and I’m really encouraged by the response, it’s really awesome,” Dooley said. “There are so many people in our Maine communities who want to do the right thing and support these young people.”