Using Middle Grade Fiction to Build Empathy and Practice Allyship With Tanvi Rastogi, Good Books Young Troublemakers

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Tanvi Rastogi, former librarian and current bookseller at Dog-Eared Books of Ames, Iowa, is the founder of the Good Books Young Troublemakers book club. Open to middle school and high school students, GBYT does not shy away from middle grade fiction with challenging instances of harassment or bullying, even when it deals with identity-based bullying.

In fact, the club uses these moments to prepare for having empathy and offering support when similar moments happen in real life. Founded in Ames, the book club is testing similar clubs in Colorado, Chicago, and Maryland to prepare for a national nonprofit launch.

ABFE spoke with Tanvi about the book club, its origins, and its mission.

What is the Good Books Young Troublemakers book club?

Good Books Young Troublemakers is a book club I created in April of 2021 here at Dog-Eared Books in Ames, Iowa. I had spent my whole career working with kids — particularly middle schoolers and high schoolers. And I knew that however progressive a community is, however progressive a family is, people are not often talking explicitly about current events, politics, and allyship with kids. And I also knew that kids — all people — sometimes have a hard time living our values because we don’t always know how.

The book club started as a way to not only help kids develop empathy through representative, diverse literature, but also to provide a space where they could practice their allyship skills. Through that practice, they develop those skills and then they strengthen them through practice over time. It’s specifically for kids who are in middle school, grades six through eight (I’ve had some younger, some older). We read middle grade fiction, mostly contemporary.

What made you start GBYT?

I used to do book talks [at our middle school and high school] as part of my duties as a young adult librarian in Ames. I would always try to pick a diverse range of titles to introduce the kids to. I went to sixth grade class one year and was telling them about this mystery book, then this fantasy book, this book that has a gay boy as the main character — and when I held up that book, the reaction was very swift, and it was very negative. I froze. The teacher didn’t say anything. I really wondered — What is my role here? I’m a guest in this classroom, I don’t know any of these kids, I don’t really know this teacher. What can I say?

So I didn’t say anything at all. And I was really angry at myself, because as a librarian, I had a duty to care for people of all identities and help ensure that those people were safe, especially when they came into my library space. And if I am allowing kids to say these really negative things about queer kids, then I am not ensuring that my space is safe, and I am not showing that I am a safe person for those queer kids. Every day for the next six months, I would relive that moment, and I would think about all of the different things I could have said.

After a while, I had basically coached myself. I had given myself a script. I was like, “Oh, I practiced this, and now I know what to do if it happens again.” And [when] it did happen again, I knew what to do and I knew what to say. And I thought, if I can learn how to do this, anyone can. I’m very introverted. I'm very shy. But I also know what I believe.

How is the book club structured, and in what ways is it different from a normal book club?

Every book club is divided into two halves. The first five or so questions are all empathy-building questions. Then the second set of questions [address a scenario that] happened in the book. [For example,] we just read The Parker Inheritance, which focuses most specifically on racism that has occurred in the past, but there’s also a contemporary storyline in which a character is being bullied by some neighborhood kids — ostensibly for being gay, [though] you never actually find out what his identity is. But they keep picking on him, and it becomes increasingly violent. We just pulled that whole situation out of the book.

So Brandon is being bullied, but he’s got his friend Candice with him. What are some of the things that Candice could have done to support Brandon? Let’s talk that through — what does that look like? We talk about things like the distraction technique. Determining, am I going to make things worse for this person if I do something right now? And if I assess that, yes, I am going to make things worse, what can I do after the fact to make sure that this person is supported? Am I putting myself at some sort of risk when I do X, Y, or Z things? We pull situations right out of the book and we imagine ourselves in those.

Some people who are challenging books in libraries claim that middle school and high school kids are too young to encounter some of the challenging scenarios that are the focus of your book club. How would you respond?

They are experiencing [these situations]. About a month ago, we had a discussion in the book club, and we were talking about racism. One kid said, “I think kids are too young to talk about it.” And another kid who has been coming to a club for two years now says, “Well, Black and brown kids experience racism, and I feel like if they experience racism, then the rest of us should be able to talk about racism.” So maybe I’m not experiencing transphobia because I'm not a trans person, but someone else is. And if people are experiencing it, then the rest of us should be able to discuss it.

It’s healthier to encounter these issues within the world of a book than it is to be caught unprepared in the world and have to understand: “What is this? What's happening, and why is it happening? I don't know how to respond to it and I don’t know how to feel about it.” That’s very unsafe. But reading about it prepares you. It prepares you if you’re the one experiencing it, and it prepares you if a peer is going to experience it. [Even if] you encounter it on TV, I think it’s better to encounter it first in a book that is written for your age group, by people who understand that stage of development.

Since you started the club, what has the response been like from the participants and from the community?

The response has been really great. I started in April 2021, and [around] December of that same year, a woman came into the store and said, “I love your book club,” and that while she didn’t have any children of her own, she was so enamored with the idea of the club she wanted to sponsor a month’s worth of books for the kids. (Previously, we had been offering books at a 20% discount.) She sponsored a month so they didn’t have to pay, and she said, “I think you should put out a public call, because there are definitely people in this community who would also sponsor books for these kids because of the mission of the book club.” So since January of 2022, no one has ever had to pay for a book [for the book club]. And that’s really tremendous. Anyone can participate regardless of whether or not they can afford the book.

And the kids themselves — I’ve had some of them that have been coming for the entire two years. They really love it. It’s really phenomenal to see those long-term kids and their ability to understand pretty complex topics. They are so adept now at making those assessments when we do our allyship scenarios and helping to talk other kids through those scenarios. Because I don’t actually even always have to do it. They just do it with each other, which is incredible.

If someone was looking at Good Books Young Troublemakers and wanted to emulate it in some way or wanted to learn from it, what advice would you give them?

I think paying attention to current events is really important, because doing that helps you not only make the ties between the books you’re reading and current events, but it helps you understand what different marginalized peoples are experiencing. Empathy doesn’t really matter if you can’t make the leap to applying it to real people. It’s great to support a Muslim kid in the world of fiction, but you have to be able to make that leap and understand, what are these kids experiencing right now in real life in my community and in my country?

What are your plans for GBYT?

It’s in the process right now of hopefully getting IRS nonprofit status. We have five test sites who are launching their own GBYT in January: in Maryland, Iowa, two in Colorado, and Chicago. And they’re going to test the strength of the model and the materials. And then I’m hoping in either summer or fall of 2024 to open it nationally so people can join and start their own chapter. Because it takes a tremendous amount of work to put each book club guide together, and I want to make those available for other people. The best way [to get involved] is to get on the website,, and see a little bit more background info about the book club — what it is, how it functions — and all of the books that we’ve read for past two and a half years.