Build Your Stack: Unapologetically Me! Characters Who Are Confidently, Courageously, and Proudly Themselves

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This blog post was written by NCTE member Aliza Werner. It’s part of Build Your Stack,® an NCTE initiative focused exclusively on helping teachers build their book knowledge and their classroom libraries. Build Your Stack® provides a forum for contributors to share books from their classroom experience; inclusion in a blog post does not imply endorsement or promotion of specific books by NCTE.

Look up “unapologetic” in the dictionary and you will find two definitions: one that underscores absence and another that highlights presence.

Unapologetic

adj.

/ ˌən-ə-ˌpä-lə-ˈje-tik /

  1. Refusal to express remorse or regret
  2. Sense of strength and pride in being your true self

The absence of guilt and the presence of pride in the many pieces of identity is what it means to be “unapologetically me.” Characters in early chapter and middle grade books, fiction and nonfiction, have the potential to show readers how they navigate, discover, and experience all that is intertwined with their identity. To be “unapologetically me” means authenticity. Honesty. Freedom from others’ labels and the power to claim and name your own truths. Laying down the burdens of arbitrary, rigid rules.

To be “unapologetically me” means not settling for tolerance, nor satisfied with acceptance, but expecting celebration, fully and unconditionally.

To live out loud and love the pieces of yourself is not without struggle. It’s the human way. From our first breath on our first day, we are born into boxes, stickered with labels, and tethered to constructs that confine and constrain. Let’s dream. What if we waited for each new human to tell us who they were before we decided for them? What if we nudged them out of the boxes as a mother bird does with her hatchlings in their nest? Let them learn. Let them explore. Let them try and fail and grow. Let them fly. What if we let them love themselves for who they are, not despite it?

I want readers to see it all. Their books should show the struggle, the heartbreak, the reckoning, the metamorphosis, the celebration. The joy it is to be yourself.

I look to characters on this journey, who will now or someday say, “I will NOT apologize for . . .

Shattering gender norms and breaking boundaries

(Suggested books: A Black Woman Did That, Brave. Black. First, Isaiah Dunn is My Hero, Jasmine Toguchi, I Am Not a Label)

The shape of my body
(Suggested books: Starfish, It’s Girls Like You, Mickey, All of Me)

My neurodivergent brain
(Suggested books: Get a Grip Vivy Cohen!, Tornado Brain, Each Tiny Spark)

Getting my period

(Suggested books: The Moon Within, Go With the Flow, Revenge of the Red Club)

The bright and brave rainbow I radiate

(Suggested books: The Derby Daredevils: Kenzie Kickstarts a TeamThe Best at It, The Mighty Heart of Sunny St. James, Martin McLean, Middle School Queen, The Insiders)

Carrying my ancestors in my bones and spirit

(Suggested books: Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids, Root MagicMeet Yasmin!, Sadiq and the Explorers, Ana & Andrew, Planet Omar: Unexpected Super Spy, Once Upon an Eid: Stories of Hope and Joy by 15 Muslim Voices, Any Day with You, A Place at the Table, Orca Origins)

Living at intersections of identity

(Suggested books: Lupe Wong Won’t Dance, Stand Up, Yumi Chung!, American as Paneer Pie, Red, White, and Whole, The Year I Flew Away)

Being different from you 

(Suggested books: Frank and Bean, Fox & Rabbit, Sydney & Taylor Explore the Whole Wide World)

What if we handed readers armloads of books with characters who show that it’s not only okay to be you, but it’s phenomenal to be you? One of those stories might be the nudge they need to spread their wings, brave the leap, and explore beyond the nest. Let’s show our readers that when they are unapologetically themselves, no dictionary could ever define them.

 

Aliza Werner (she/her, @alizateach) is an elementary educator and consultant in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Aliza holds a B.S. in Deaf Education from Boston University and M.S. in Curriculum & Instruction with a focus in Language and Literacy from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She serves on the Wisconsin State Reading Association’s Children’s Literature Committee. At Milwaukee Film, she is a Curriculum Writer, Fellowship Facilitator, on the Education and “Rated K For Kids” Film Screening Committees, and is developing media literacy programs for educators and families. Aliza is passionate about literacy education: multimedia/multimodal literacies, anti-bias/antiracist pedagogy and practice, and inclusive, diverse, & representative children’s literature. She and her husband have two kids with paws, Liffey and Poet. World traveler. Reader. Writer. Jewish. Acquired disability. Knitter. Photographer. Auntie.

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It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.

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