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Climbing Into His Skin

    Earlier this year I was subbing for an English teacher whose sub plans included ten minutes of silent reading. It may be safe to say I was obnoxiously enthusiastic about going into those ten minutes. One of the students asked, “Why do you like reading so much?” I didn’t really have a satisfying answer for her at the time. I do now.

    My appreciation for books is very similar to other people’s enjoyment of filmed entertainment. It’s an escape into another world and another person’s creation. Some books are simply that. I call those books mind candy. They don’t take a lot of thought and provide a nice break from daily pressure. Books are my preferred format partially because they are more portable. My daughter is a dancer. I have spent countless hours waiting for her classes to end or a performance somewhere to begin. A book is always with me. With hoopla and Libby on my phone, hundreds of books are always with me.

    Two more advantages are they are longer than a television episode, but shorter than a series. The stories are more developed than a single episode with more detail and development. In my younger years a series made you wait a week for the next episode. Today, after binging on a season, I have to wait up to a year for the next one to be released. That gives me a long time to lose the thread of the narrative, the flow of the character and story development.

    In To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Atticus gives an even better explanation for why I love books. He tells his daughter, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” The first book help recognize this was a draw for me was Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father. It was also the first nonfiction book I loved. Loung and I are the same age. While I was decorating my two-wheeler for the bicentennial parade, she was fleeing for her life from the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. More than any history class, this book brought another country to life and opened my eyes to how lucky I am to have been born in the United States.

    We can have a similar experience in fiction books as well. Several years ago I read I Am J by Cris Beam about a transgender teen. At that point I’d never met a transgender or questioning or gender neutral or other nontraditional oriented person. I have since met several. Remembering the experiences of that character helped give me not an understanding of those lives, but at least a glimpse of struggles and pain they may be experiencing to which I would have otherwise been oblivious.

    Recently the library received a donation for youth books that show the experiences of different life experiences. The donation was specifically in memory of a person with Down syndrome. In addition to Down syndrome,  characters in the selected books may blind, deaf, or autistic or have suffered lose of a limb, a stroke, or anxiety. One of my favorites, Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper has a main character with cerebral palsy.

    In selecting those books my goal was not just to educate readers about challenges people face, but to select books in which those challenges may not be the focus. Instead those challenges are secondary to the story. While I may learn a lot about autism from a book such as the elementary #EastTroyReads A Boy Called Bat by Elana Arnold, I can’t actually walk in his shoes if the story doesn’t also draw me in.

    If you would like to walk in another’s skin, come on in and we’ll help you find the fictional one to try on or nonfiction to compare to your world. It’s one way we can build the empathy needed to make the world a kinder place to be.