Representation matters: The rural literature library
March 1, 2023
By Rachelle Kuehl
This blog article was originally published by the Center for Rural Education at Virginia Tech.
March 1, 2023
It is more than a bit of an understatement to say that I was an avid reader as a child. My mom took my siblings and me to the public library every week or two, either to the small branch just down the road, or, if I were really lucky, to one of the much bigger libraries a suburb or two away from our own. My job, right when we got home, was to gather all the books we’d checked out so I could record their titles on what was inevitably a very long list that I’d pin to the bulletin board in our kitchen, taking it down before the next library trip so we could round up all the books again to return them before the due date. I’ve written before about how I’d read and reread the Little House on the Prairie series, and I had other authors I would seek out on the library shelves, reading their books again and again: Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, Lois Lowry, and of course, all of Ann M. Martin’s Babysitters Club series books. While these books were wonderful and kept me entertained, I can see now that, collectively, they presented a pretty limited view of the world, with most of them featuring other White girls who lived in the suburbs like I did (with the exception of Lowry’s Anastasia Krupnik, who was a New Yorker through and through).
In my role as manager of the Appalachian Rural Talent Initiative (ARTI), a project funded by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation to promote increased equity in gifted programming for rural students, I have been working to revise an existing place-based language arts curriculum to make it more relevant to students who live in rural Appalachia by embedding it with stories that take place in the region. Alongside this process, I have been building an online resource for rural teachers, the Center for Rural Education’s Rural Literature Library. Guided by Rudine Sims Bishop’s (1990) famous call to ensure students have books that serve as windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors, we wanted to create a place for teachers to find books that either reflect their students’ rural identities or, for teachers who work with students who don’t live in rural places, provide windows and doors into experiences that will help them build an understanding of and appreciation for rural culture. With these goals in mind, I searched the internet for books set in rural places that might resonate more with rural students’ experiences than the “go-to” books from my own childhood would have. I have kept in mind, though, the warning from Karen Eppley, in her scholarly analysis of picture books set in rural places (Eppley, 2010), to evaluate and critically discuss such books to avoid perpetuating stereotypes of rural people and places as either backwards and ignorant or purely idyllic and nostalgic. To that end, we created a downloadable infographic teachers can use to help students interrogate, examine, explore, and critique the use of place in children’s literature with the aim of dismantling unhelpful stereotypes about rural people and communities.
In the library, the books are sorted into three categories: Picture Books, Middle Grade, and Young Adult. Users can search by author, by state or region where the books are set, by publication date, and by awards the book might have earned, such as the Whippoorwill Award for Rural Young Adult Literature. We have a category for the protagonist’s gender, thinking that teachers might especially want to search for books featuring male protagonists that would appeal to male students, who are sometimes more-reluctant readers, and while we included a nonbinary option, we have yet to discover rural books featuring nonbinary protagonists. We’re considering how to best help users identify the race or ethnicity of protagonists as well, but without the ability to read every single book in the library, we don’t want to make assumptions, nor do we want to contribute to the erasure of characters’ identities by leaving off the indication of race for books about which we’re not sure.
Throughout the process of curating this library, I became increasingly interested in how rural people and places are depicted in middle grade novels, a genre that remains a favorite of mine long after my days of spending whole afternoons absorbed in the worlds created by Judy Blume and her peers. I teamed up with Dr. Eppley to explore these representations, and we are currently polishing up a manuscript about our critical content analysis of 52 contemporary realistic fiction novels for middle grade readers that are set in the rural United States. Here, I want to highlight a few of my favorite books in the set—books that offer nuanced portrayals of diverse rural places with characters who grapple with issues of equity, identity, and belonging.
- The Season of Styx Malone by Kekla Magoon (Yearling, 2018). Franklin and Bobby Gene are brothers and best friends who’ve never left their small Indiana town. Meeting Styx Malone, an older boy staying with a foster family nearby, adds fun and adventure to their summer, and they learn that their dad’s insistence on staying within the town limits is rooted in his fears over their safety as Black boys in a society tainted by racism.
- The Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eagar (Candlewick, 2016). When the grandfather she’s never met faces Alzheimer’s and can no longer live alone, Carolina and her family spend a hot summer helping prepare his sheep ranch for sale. Through stories her grandfather tells throughout the summer, she gets to know about her Mexican heritage, the reasons her father and grandfather have trouble getting along, and the beautiful New Mexico desert sky.
- Where the Heart Is by Jo Knowles (Candlewick, 2019). Because of job loss, Rachel’s family is forced to sell their dream home on the small farm where they’ve lived since before she was born. The financial stress and loss of place takes its toll on Rachel, who feels angry and resentful that her parents can’t find a way to keep their lives from changing for the worse. Meanwhile, Rachel realizes that her attraction to another girl threatens to set her even further apart from her peers.
- The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor (Katherine Tegen Books, 2018). Despite being larger than all of his classmates, Mason is a gentle boy whose intellectual disability doesn’t detract from his deep knowledge of how to care for the apples his family has grown on the orchard they’ve owned for generations. As the title suggests, the story is told from Mason’s perspective—he’s trying to share the truth about what happened when a tragic accident took his friend’s life.
- End of the Wildb y Nicole Helget (Little, Brown and Company, 2017). With few jobs in the area, Fern and her stepfather and brothers are struggling financially while grieving for their Fern’s mother, who has recently passed away. When a fracking company threatens to destroy the woods near their home, Fern devotes herself to stopping them, and is heartbroken when her stepfather—in desperate need of work—ends up taking a job with the company.
- Last in a Long Line of Rebels by Lisa Lewis Tyre (Puffin Books, 2015). Louise and her friends have heard rumors that treasure may be hiding somewhere in her historic southern house. Instead, they find the diary belonging to one of the house’s previous inhabitants and discover the ugly truth that Louise’s ancestors had been enslavers, and that they had enslaved the ancestors of one of her dear friends. As she works through the difficult realization, Louise tries to do what she can to help rectify a present-day situation where racist actions have gotten in the way of justice.
- The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson (Scholastic, 2019). Like me, Varian Johnson loved reading Ellen Raskin’s (1978) mystery novel, The Westing Game growing up, but he recognized the problematic nature of how race was treated with regard to some of its characters. He wrote this book as a kind of homage to The Westing Game, using it as an opportunity to share a new story where characters discover and try to reconcile with some of the racist history of a small South Carolina town. This story includes a thoughtful representation of LGBTQ+ characters.
These books and hundreds are more are featured in our library, but we could use your help in adding even more rural titles. Please click here to let us know what we’re missing and we will do our best to incorporate them onto the site.
Also, be sure to visit LiteracyinPlace.com, a wonderful website devoted to sharing rural young adult literature that features summaries, videos, author interviews, blog posts, and a contest for young rural writers.
- Bishop, R. S. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom, 6(3), ix–xi.
- Eppley, K. (2010). Picturing rural America: An analysis of the representation of contemporary rural America in picture books for children. Rural Educator, 32(1), 1–10.
Rachelle Kuehl is a 2022 National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellow and a research scientist in the Center for Rural Education at Virginia Tech. Her articles about children’s literature and literacy education have appeared in journals such as The Reading Teacher, The Journal of Children’s Literature, English Journal, English in Education, and Reading Horizons.