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FOLD 2019: Amid education cuts, five writers for young people say public schools need to encourage developing readers

Inspiring young people to read at the Festival for Literary Diversity (Herman Custodio)

At the Festival of Literary Diversity (May 2–5), young writers will be mentored by established novelists at the first Teen Track program. Elsewhere, a panel called “Educate Me: Creating Lifelong Readers” features four author/teachers discussing how they engage a new generation in reading something longer than a text.

As enthusiastic as the FOLD is about young people reading, the Brampton, Ontario, festival is taking place in a province where the public-education budget is being cut back, translating to fewer teachers, fewer electives, and larger class sizes.

Against the backdrop of student walkouts and general strikes protesting the Ontario Conservative government’s cuts, five of FOLD’s writers for young people shared their visions for how a government can support young readers.

Zetta Elliott
Dragons In A Bag (Random House Books For Young People)
I’ve been impressed by the student protests against the policies of the current provincial government. Sometimes it does feel like we’re living in a dystopian novel, so it makes sense to engage young people by teaching speculative fiction. I wish I’d had the chance to study Nalo Hopkinson’s novels when I was a teen. If we want the next generation to envision a better future, we should offer them examples in history and in literature of successful resistance to oppressive regimes.

Tanaz Bhathena
Author of The Beauty of the Moment (Penguin Random House Canada)

Teachers form the backbone of schools. They’re the ones who introduce students to books they may not otherwise pick up, who encourage them to read. If not for teachers, I wouldn’t have developed as strong a love for stories and storytelling. Limiting resources places limits on students and the things they are capable of. I strongly urge the Ontario government to reconsider its education plan.

Uzma Jalaluddin
Author of Ayesha at Last (HarperCollins Canada)

Today, most school boards have a mandated focus on inclusivity and individual schools have made progress to this end, from including more Indigenous content and stories, to buying books by authors of colour. All of this requires education, consultation, time and money, however, to encourage creators of colour to share and bring those experiences into the classroom setting.

Too many young people are being turned off reading from a young age, because they simply do not see themselves represented in the books and stories they consume in schools. By cutting teachers, increasing class sizes, and decreasing library budgets, we are sending a clear message to young people that they don’t matter.

Ben Philippe
Author of The Field Guide to the North American Teenager (Balzer + Bray)
Reading is the first key to empathy and I can’t imagine something that’s more necessary to foster in children’s curriculum these days. It’s the basis for humanities, sociology, anthropology… It all starts with reading. I always worry a bit when a resource this important starts to look like an optional budget line.

Ann Y. K. Choi
Author of Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety (Touchstone)
The government needs to balance its fiscal responsibilities with its social and educational responsibilities. Larger class sizes mean fewer opportunities for educators to get to know our students and to personalize the learning. This affects our ability to plan and teach based on our knowledge of the students’ strengths, needs, and interests.

In high schools, we’ve moved away from studying a single book as part of the novel study. Instead, students are able to choose from a variety of different books and read them in book club groups. Fewer financial resources would compromise our ability to meet our students’ varied literacy needs.

I’ve spent the past 18 years as a teacher trying to encourage students to see that reading is a vital skill. Our role as teachers is to provide reading opportunities that reflect the diversity of the social identities in our school communities – students must see themselves and their lives as part of their ongoing learning.

Full programming for the FOLD is posted at TheFoldCanada.org