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A Room Of Your Own: Opening up the world one book at a time

By Daina Astwood-George • May 12, 2024Big Ideas in Books

Follow The Reader is our series featuring unconventional leaders and trailblazers.

For the last seven years, Tanya Lee has been running a monthly grassroots book club that strives to remove the barriers to reading that some cisgender, transgender and non-binary teenage girls face at various schools around Ontario. The founder of A Room Of Your Own, who I spoke with two years ago, is just as enthusiastic and ambitious today as she was back then.

Still at the centre of it all, Tanya works tirelessly to secure the books, coordinate author participation and host every meeting. A child at heart herself, she plays games at the beginning of every discussion to get the students warmed and is thrilled by the program’s reach since embracing a virtual format.

I caught up with Tanya recently to learn about how A Room Of Your Own has evolved and what she’s envisioning for the future. Book club leads at various schools also lend their voices to this conversation.

Daina Astwood-George: How many girls have been part of the program so far?

Tanya Lee: Thousands and I’m still in touch with the original girls from the very first book club. I remember these giddy young women coming down the stairs, all smiles and laughter, but I talk to them now and they’ve got these mature voices and I’m the one who’s giddy [shrieks]! Times have changed. Most of the girls have gone on to university and college, so they’re working really, really hard, and I admire them for that. I’m very happy for them.

DAG: How did you grow the book club over the years?

TL: I just started reaching out to different schools. The teachers were supportive and word spread through the students. They would receive the books for free and come downtown to meet the author, and they’d get a pizza lunch and cake. No one had ever offered that to them before, so they really loved it.

Teachers who do extracurricular activities don’t get enough praise because they go above and beyond on their own time. Some of them go out of their way to pick up the books, they make sure the students read them and do the exercises, and they help the young women to claim their space. It’s important that they learn now not to shrink in life.

Having participated in A Room Of Your Own over the years, five teachers and librarians shared why they got involved, their insights on the book club and the impact it has had on students.

Andrea Persaud, an English and social sciences teacher at Downsview Secondary School:

I’ve been part of the library recently and that’s where I got involved with the book club. Of course I loved it, I’m an English teacher. It’s reading and it’s books…what’s not to love?! Then there’s this whole communal aspect where the girls have the opportunity to go off and read a text independently, digest it and then come together with peers at other schools to discuss it. Plus they get to keep the books. A lot of them had never participated in anything like that before.

Aside from the literacy aspect, I think this also presents great leadership opportunities, as well as an outlet for them to express themselves. There are so many opportunities for learning and growth.

DAG: What has been a highlight of this program for you?

Andrea: I didn’t anticipate this, but having students who are usually very shy participate. They were able to make friends, work on their self esteem and gain more confidence because a lot of the time the group setting was very intimate.

They also had a lot of choices. They could choose which book clubs they wanted to come to, meaning which books they wanted to read, and there was lots of flexibility. In the past, I think there was a hesitation to commit because they didn’t know their schedules a month or two months in advance, so having that choice was attractive to them. It drew them in and word spread.

Aside from the literacy aspect, I think this also presents great leadership opportunities, as well as an outlet for them to express themselves. There are so many opportunities for learning and growth.

Kathy Saunders, an ESL teacher at Samuel Hearne Middle School:

Tanya was looking for inner-city schools to participate and we’re a model school, so our vice-principal was happy to have us join. She asked me to take over because I’m a voracious reader. We ask the teachers to give us names of students who they think would be excited to participate – I know a lot of work goes into getting the books, so we want to make sure the group is eager to crack them open and take part in the discussions – then we go from there.

Part of the reason I enjoy doing this is I really love introducing new books to students. I’m a firm believer that everyone can enjoy reading. When kids say they don’t like reading, I just feel like they haven’t found that book, and this was a really good opportunity for girls from different classes and grades to get together and read collectively.

DAG: How do you navigate the tough conversations that students are having in these spaces?

Kathy: One of the books that stood out to me was All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven. It dealt with a friendship between two teenagers and themes of suicide ideation, so we explored the topic of mental heath and the emotions the characters were going through.

Night of the Living Queers was another book we selected, but we’ve had some issues with Pride month in the past, so I was upfront about it. I said if this isn’t the book for you, you have the option to leave, and unfortunately, after starting with over 20 kids, I was left with six. It was disappointing and sad, but this book club explores all sorts of people.

It’s not always about the issues, though. Sometimes they’re really into the writing and the character development. I run the writers’ club here, and the girls just love sitting around and hashing out ideas. It doesn’t surprise me that a couple of them are also in the book club because they’re seeing how authors are carving out stories and learning how to write their own.

Anita Crandall, a librarian at Regina Mundi Catholic College:

I’m a big reader and I love libraries. A teacher and I have been running a book club here for about 10 years, and one day we had the chance to go to the University of Western Ontario for an event that Tanya was running. I told her if there were any similar events coming up, our kids would love it.

DAG: What topics have been of particular interest to the girls you've met with?

Anita: Right now they’re really interested in romance and fantasy, and are gravitating towards those kinds of books. A book we read previously, though, Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, is about a girl and the reasons she commits suicide. One of them is that the boys are rating girls, and someone in our book club actually thought it would be great if you were on the list. It’s so fascinating to hear the students’ perspectives compared to my adult perspective, and after we talked about it, she understood that it wasn’t a good thing. It was a real eye-opener for me.

Speaking of which, about five years ago, we had this young man who wanted to join. He drove us crazy because he never liked anything, he was so disruptive and we thought he was just coming for the snacks. But at the end of the year when he graduated, he skipped class to be in our yearbook picture and told me that this was the only club he could actually be part of. Our book was the only one he’d read all year. That was a moment of enlightenment, you know? Not everybody’s there for the same reasons, so don’t prejudge.

Sharda Veoli, an ESL teacher at Etobicoke Collegiate Institute:

I’ve been so grateful for the opportunities the girls are given through this program. I became involved when I was at my previous school, Downsview Secondary, and I facilitated the partnership with our students as the head of literacy. I really appreciated that these beautiful, current, hard-cover books were gifted to the kids and they got to meet the authors, who were selected so thoughtfully. The authors who participate are often racialized and identify with many different groups, and that’s exciting for students who see themselves reflected in them. There’s something powerful about reading a book by someone who has a similar cultural background or life experiences as you.

This year I took more of an organizational leadership role at my new school, Etobicoke Collegiate, because I value this work so much. School libraries play an important role in giving students access to these texts, and it’s just another way of promoting literacy and getting books into kids’ hands.

DAG: What has been the most challenging aspect of this initiative and what did you do/are you doing to overcome it?

Sharda: The logistics can be quite challenging. Last year when we were actually going downtown to meet the author, there were some kids who couldn’t go on the particular day, or if we met in the evening, some had after-school jobs – just rounding up the troops to make it there was difficult. But the challenges were only logistical and we’ve never had issues with the content. We do it during school hours now, and the kids all have headphones and their own devices. They're physically together, but connecting with the authors virtually, which has made it even more accessible.

There’s something powerful about reading a book by someone who has a similar cultural background or life experiences as you.

Sandy Dhaliwal, a librarian, and social sciences and humanities teacher at Sir Oliver Mowat Collegiate Institute:

I heard about it through our teacher-librarian network and this is my first year participating. I wanted to join because I thought it would be such a lovely opportunity for students to get together and talk about books. Our school already had a book club for female-identifying students, so the way that it came about was very organic. I brought up the idea to the girls and they were really, really excited, especially about getting to meet the authors.

DAG: What has surprised you most about this initiative?

Sandy: I would have to say the energy that Tanya brings to the book club and how she validates each of the girls’ responses. I can see their faces light up when she communicates with them and responds to them, and I think that’s really encouraging. It makes the girls want to participate even more and to answer even more questions. It’s just so engaging.

While they are typically just gifted books by Tanya, the group also shared their thoughts on which titles they think would resonate with students in future sessions.

DAG: If you could choose, what story would you like to cover next?

Andrea: I don’t have a specific book, but looking back at the experiences, I think Tanya did a really good job of choosing diverse texts. We had one about a Black ballerina, When It All Syncs Up by Maya Ameyaw, that challenged their very limited image of what it means to be a Black dancer. Also, Autumn Peltier, Water Warrior, a picture book we read by Carole Lindstrom, was much shorter than the students were used to, but it opened their eyes to the water crisis in many Indigenous communities. Depending on the book, some students might have to put a different cover on it if their parents wouldn’t approve, but we’ll continue to be a safe space for them to explore and validate things like identity.

Kathy: I would love them to explore more environmental issues and to see how far activism can take you. I saw that Greta Thunberg has a new book out, The Climate Book, that I think delves a bit deeper into the contributions of people in math and sciences. I want the girls to see what kinds of careers they can have in those fields and to know that one person can have an impact.

Depending on the book, some students might have to put a different cover on it if their parents wouldn’t approve, but we’ll continue to be a safe space for them to explore and validate things like identity.

Anita: The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré. It’s about a 14-year-old Nigerian girl who just wants an education, but she ends up getting sold and married to an old man. The story is about how she survives it; I like the strong female voice.

Sharda: I would pick Braiding Sweetgrass for Young Adults by Robin Wall Kimmerer and Monique Gray Smith. I think it’s important to give students an opportunity to read more Indigenous texts and to get more Indigenous perspectives.

Sandy: The girls are really engaged in conversations about diversity. We’ve read a lot of books by women, and we read The Changing Man by Tomi Oyemakinde, a Black author, so just continuing this would be beneficial. Our school is really focused on EDI and wellness, so there’s a natural fit.

Tanya has developed a good sense of which books will have a lasting impact. Looking ahead, she shares what else is on her reading list, her future plans and the big dreams she has for these girls.

DAG: Do you have any fun guests planned? Can anyone possibly top Michelle Obama?!

TL: I’m manifesting the legal team from South Africa that went to The Hague Institute for Global Justice to participate next year. I’d like them to come and talk about their work because they embody the spirit and legacy of Nelson Mandela. We’d read Long Walk to Freedom, and I’d like all the young women from book clubs past and present to be in attendance. I hope to live stream it across the world.

DAG: Why is that particular story so important?

TL: If you feel passionately about something, you should speak up, but you also have to learn what will happen when you. Everyone who stood on the right side of history had to go against the current and swim strong. I really admire people who say, “I believe this is wrong and I’m going to do something about it.” Not very many people have the courage to stand up and I want them to realize how important that is.

Not very many people have the courage to stand up and I want them to realize how important that is.

DAG: What are your ambitions for this program in the future?

TL
: Launching a podcast! I taped all of the book clubs this year and it’s in the works. The season will probably launch in September or October, so anyone from around the world can listen to these amazing authors and these very bright students. I’ve also been filming the book club for seven years, so we’re putting together a documentary. We started the program on a shoestring budget, so it’s nice to see how it has progressed.

I want these young women to learn about people from all walks of life and to have amazing journeys through these books because reading opens up your world.

Owning books is a luxury, especially in these economic times, so if I can get books in these students' hands that they get to keep, I’ll do that. Reading, literacy and reading comprehension are determinants of health, and a lot of people don’t realize that. I want these young women to learn about people from all walks of life and to have amazing journeys through these books because reading opens up your world. I just want them to become exceptional role models, and to dream of what they can be and do. Reading is magic and so are they.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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