‘Read Woke’ School Reading Challenge Makes an Impact

A school librarian’s reading initiative highlights social justice.

These are volatile times. Across the country, parents of color are having “the talk” with their kids about how to prevent the police from seeing them as a threat because of their skin color or how they dress. Families are being torn apart and deported. Each day on TV, we witness acts of social injustice. I come to school and talk about these events with my students, many of whom have opinions—but not much knowledge about their rights.

Every year I have a theme in my school library. In 2017, it was Harry Potter. In our current political and social climate, I knew that my students were hurting and needed something different this year. After coming across the Stay Woke edition of Essence magazine, I launched Read Woke at my library.

What is Read Woke? It’s a feeling. A form of education. A call to action, and our right as lifelong learners. It means arming yourself with knowledge to better protect your rights. Learning about others so you treat people with respect and dignity, no matter their religion, race, creed, or color.

I concluded that a Woke Book must:

• Challenge a social norm • Give voice to the voiceless • Provide information about a group that has been disenfranchised • Seek to challenge the status quo • Have a protagonist from an underrepresented or oppressed group

We started Read Woke in September. The students were asking questions in response to the many cases of unarmed black boys and men being shot by police officers. They wanted answers. They were angry. They staged a walkout, but that did nothing to appease their rage.

My school is more than 70 percent Latino. The day DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) was repealed, my students were crying and afraid. That made my movement even more relevant.

Students who read four recommended books from my Read Woke list can win a T-shirt, a free book, and post a photo on our Instagram. They may review titles, too. I also asked teachers to adopt Woke Books—they read them and use trivia questions to quiz the students on their knowledge of the titles.

Our most popular books are Dear Martin, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, The Book of Unknown Americans, and The Hate U Give. They all have characters who look like my students and face issues plaguing our society. There’s a waiting list for these titles, and our circulation has increased from 2,340 to 2,817. Faculty circulation shot up by almost 50 percent!

“Before this, I had never read an entire book,” one student commented. “I will keep reading woke books.”

Students are recommending books and engaging in serious dialogue.

I bought the books using my county-allocated funds. A student-run school T-shirt lab created the shirts in exchange for publicity.

When I started Read Woke, I asked myself how I could make an impact. A quote from The Librarian of Auschwitz exemplifies my mission: “The library has now become her first-aid kit, and she’s going to give the children a little of the medicine that helped her recover her smile when she thought she’d lost it forever.”

Let the healing begin.

Woke books

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brenden Kiely

Dear Martin by Nic Stone

Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard

The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas

Hunger by Roxane Gay

I am Malala :The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera

The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika Sánchez

Sugar by Deirdre Riordan Hall

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander 

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina

What's on your Woke Books list? Let us know in the comments.

Cicely Lewis is a small-town girl from Mississippi with a passion for promoting literacy in nontraditional ways in her media center at Meadowcreek High School in Norcross, GA. Currently, she’s featured on the cover of the 2017 “The Power of Librarians” calendar.

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Emily Visness

Thanks for this! Our 8th grade team is using #readwoke as our reading challenge next year! I know the kids will love it because the books on these lists that I have in my classroom library are the most frequently checked out titles. We're giving you all the credit, and posting this article in all of our classrooms. So excited for next year!

Posted : May 11, 2018 08:14

Nicole Thompson

What an incredibly engaging and important program!! THANK YOU, for doing this and for giving me such an amazing platform to try something like this! We are going to mimic this programming in our school and we will be giving you credit on our library page. You’re an inspiration!

Posted : Apr 27, 2018 11:34

Zandra Harris

This is awesome! This just maybe the key that will unlock the door for my totally unmotivated 4th grade class of 8 students. Thank you. My plan is to buy the books and give them the copy of whatever they read.

Posted : Apr 25, 2018 08:29

Bev. Hare

Awesome. Thanks Ms. Lewis for pushing not only literacy but the agenda we often neglect talking about in a diverse country. I'm recommending your tips to the elementary school where my son is the principal. Also would love to use your list in a Summer Reading program through my church! Thank you again.

Posted : Apr 24, 2018 08:08

Laura Beam McKinney

This is so amazing! I love everything about this challenge! I’m currently doing my masters thesis on why access to diverse (specifically own voice) books in schools is so important!

Posted : Apr 20, 2018 07:56

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