Welcome to "Read Woke"

In this new column, Cicely Lewis explores books that embrace social change.

Cicely Lewis

When I started my Read Woke Challenge at Meadowcreek High in Norcross, GA, I never imagined it would have such an impact. It began when I asked my students to read books that met certain criteria, including giving voice to the voiceless and challenging social norms. Those who read four titles could win a “Read Woke” T-shirt or a book, post photos on our Instagram account, and review titles.

A year and a half later, librarians around the world are ambassadors of this idea, sharing displays and stories. Authors sport “Read Woke” pins on social media. Students are aware and empowered. You only need to Google “Read Woke” to see its effect.

What is Read Woke? It’s a feeling. A form of education. A call to action, and our right as lifelong learners. Arming yourself with the knowledge to protect your rights. Learning about others, so you treat all with respect and dignity.

A woke book must inform about a disenfranchised group, challenge the status quo, and have a protagonist from an underrepresented or oppressed group.

While the Read Woke challenge has made a global impression, the local impact has been profound as well. Most of the high school media specialists in Gwinnett County have implemented the challenge in their schools. I’ve expanded the program to our special education classes as well; we are using woke picture books with our students who have Moderate Intellectual Disabilities (MOID).

I meet with the MOID students every Wednesday, and we focus on mental health awareness, immigration, and other social justice issues. These amazing students have committed to read 100 picture books, and each student will receive a T-shirt.

While hosting a Read Woke book tasting with one of our AP literature classes recently, I noticed one of our students at the LGBTQ+ table. I had a table for each social justice issue, including an LGBTQ+ table and a table on racism.

The student was holding Being Jazz by Jazz Jennings and completing a book tasting form, where students can rate books. As I walked by, I heard him say, "It must be hard for a kid to have to go through something like this." He was referring to Jennings, and her journey as a transgender teen. I truly realized the power of Read Woke at that moment. That student will never be the same. I know this experience had an effect of his beliefs and the way he treats members of the transgender community.

At my school, language art teacher Mariella Tomova is one of the biggest supporters of Read Woke. She has signed up more students for the challenge than any faculty member, so I decided to reward her with one of my “Read Woke” pins, which were created by Lerner publishing. She put it on immediately and wore it back to her class. Later, she told me that the students were upset about her wearing the pin. One said, "Those pins are for us. We are the ones reading the books. Not you." We laughed, but I realized then that the students have truly taken ownership of the Challenge. Everyone in our school knows what pins and the T-shirts mean. They are symbols of pride.

I’m honored to have been a witness to this great movement. It’s only the beginning. Every day, another story on social media makes Read Woke more relevant. Now is not the time to become complacent.

March 2 is the National Education Association’s Read Across America Day. In light of research identifying blackface and minstrel caricatures found in Dr. Seuss’s work, many are frustrated and looking for ways to diversify their selections. I’m claiming next week as Read Woke Across America Week. What woke books would you read with your students?

In this SLJ column, I will share woke book selections. Let’s take a look!

The Beauty of the Moment by Tanaz Bhathena (FSG, 2019; Gr 8 Up)
People might think a woke book has to be about “fighting the power” or standing up for a movement. Yes, and this can happen through a love story. The romcom genre is gaining more culturally diverse protagonists, as in this tale told by alternating narrators. What better way to protest inequity than to show how we are all unique—and the same. We fall in love, have to fit in, and try to find ourselves.

Through Susan and Malcolm’s journey, readers see the complexity of trying to assimilate yet maintain the values of one’s culture—while living up to parents’ expectations. The author doesn’t explain cultural references. I looked up several terms, and I learned a lot.

 

 

On the Come Up by Angie Thomas (Balzer + Bray, 2019; Gr 8 Up)
Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy meets Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Bri Jackson is a young, black MC with plans to take the rap world by storm. But she is dealing with family, identity, and school issues that could get in her way. Bri must ­navigate a world that expects her to be a “hoodrat” because of her gender, socioeconomic status, and race, when all she wants to do is let society know about the daily injustice she faces. Beneath her tough-girl facade is a young woman who wants to help her family and break away from her father’s shadow. Laced with ferocious rap flows and hip-hop references that pay homage to the greats, this is a stellar follow-up to Thomas’s The Hate You Give.

 

 

Watch Us Rise by Renée Watson and Ellen Hagan (Bloomsbury, 2019; Gr 8 Up)
This novel centers on two teen feminists finding their voices, but everyone needs to read it: white, black, Latinx, Asian, female, male, LGBTQ+, rich or poor.

Two friends, Jasmine, who is black, and Chelsea, who is white, start a women’s rights club and blog to protest how girls are treated at their school. Watson and Hagan capture the plight of being both female and a minority in a male-dominated society. The girls’ “woke” blog captures the voice of today’s youth. An artful masterpiece.

 

 

Can I Touch Your Hair? by Irene Latham and Charles Waters; illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko (Carolrhoda, 2018; Ages 6 Up)
This collection of poems by two authors, one white and one black, uses verse to talk about race in a way that little ones can understand. Latham and Waters offer different takes on everything from Sunday church service and beach day to sports, and, of course, hair! The beautiful art from Qualls and Alko further explores issues. Kids are never too young to Read Woke, and this book is a great way to broach the topic of race.

 

 

Remember, we must Read Woke to stay woke!


When she isn’t challenging kids to Read Woke, Cicely Lewis hosts Book Fashion Shows with her students. Follow her on Twitter @Cicelythegreat and check out her blog, "CicelytheGreat." She welcomes your work book suggestions.

 

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Ashly Roman

Congratulations to you! I am so happy to come across this information. Before reading this, I decided to start a stay woke program. I feel as though there is so much out there that our teens need to know. I will be adding this challenge to program. It is so important to teach our teens empathy now.

Posted : Mar 22, 2019 02:50


Tai Do

Congratulation Mrs. Lewis on winning Media Specialist of the year!!! Read woke is an amazing project that you created. You have empowered a lot of students at Meadowcreek High School. Personally, the read woke challenge encouraged me to read more books. Reading these books, I have learned to look at different perspective before making a judgement. Thank you so much read woke! #movement Follow @movement.streetwear on Instagram

Posted : Mar 21, 2019 05:57


Puja Chowdhury

I am so proud of Mrs.Lewis! She has always worked hard to help her students to the best of her ability. She takes the time to sit down and talk to students and listen to what they have to say. Ever since I've started high school, I've noticed how interested Mrs.Lewis was to get to know her students. From their religion and languages to what kind of books they read! Her Read Woke Challenge opened new doors, and students who have not always been interested in reading, fly through the pages of a Read Woke book and are introduced to a whole new perspective of the world that they were never exposed to before. Personally, the Read Woke Challenge has helped me open my eyes and relate to certain issues that I never knew I would find in a book. I found myself in these books, and this has truly made me realize just how much books have become more diverse. I am so glad Mrs.Lewis suggested this Challenge, because it's one of the best decisions that I have ever made, and it makes me eager to see just how big Read Woke will become.

Posted : Mar 20, 2019 03:31


Sintia Rivera

There is no one I know who has been able to impact and influence a student body in such a positive way. Mrs. Lewis is an inspiration. Very few people see how much work she does-every second tactfully used- and she doesn't care because as long as she is helping her students; as she says "Every student is [her] student". Personally I can say thanks to Mrs. Lewis I am more intelligent, resourceful and confident. She is amazing!

Posted : Mar 19, 2019 11:07


Sintia Rivera

There is no one I know who has been able to impact and influence a student body in such a positive way. Mrs. Lewis is an inspiration. Very few people see how much work she does-every second tactfully used- and she doesn't care because as long as she is helping her students; as she says "Every student is [her] student". Personally I can say thanks to Mrs. Lewis I am more intelligent, resourceful and confident. She is amazing!

Posted : Mar 19, 2019 11:07


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