picturebook

Wondrous Pitiful

My story being done
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs.
She swore, in faith, ’twas strange, ’twas passing strange,
‘Twas pitiful, ’twas wondrous pitiful. – Othello, Act 1, Scene 3

The stories of Othello’s youth moved Desdemona to love; they intrigued her, inspired her, incited her to action and emotion. The best stories do this to us–provoke strong response, either positive or negative. Laughter, or tears, or fists clenched in rage.

My American Literature professor once related the story that when he first read As I Lay Dying, this chapter incited him to throw the book against a wall and leave it there for nearly a week:

As-I-Lay-Dying-Vardaman-William-Faulkner-My-Mother-Is-a-Fish1

This is the power of literature, of art, of story.

I finally got my hands on a copy of A Birthday Cake for George Washington, and read it several times over. It was a disorienting experience; not quite on the level of “My mother is a fish” but I was perturbed nonetheless–yet only mildly so. I was sad that this story had fallen so short of the work that its subject truly deserved.

The work is not completely without merit. I found the text to be more successful on its own, divorced of the images. The text at least hinted at the tension there must have been between Hercules and his owner: how his stern expression became a smile when Martha Washington entered the kitchen, and his tone of voice changed as well; how everyone held their breath when the cake was taken upstairs; how Delia’s heart hammered in her chest when George Washington came down after the cake was eaten. After all, if the honey experiment had failed, wouldn’t there have been a punishment for Hercules? But this is never mentioned–only the gifts of fine clothes and theater tickets. Their lack of freedom is certainly unspoken, both in the text and images.

The images, I think, went too far in the direction of trying to depict the slaves as “happy” and “prideful.” There was none of the nuance of the text, where tension could be inferred from word choice and description. In every image and spread, everyone’s expression is happy or, at least, neutral, except for perhaps Martha’s expression of concern early in the book.

I still think Hercules’ is a story that should be told, but it deserves to be told in such a way that we are left aching from how passing strange and wondrous pitiful it was for such a talented man to have and achieve so much, while being denied the only thing he truly desired–his freedom.

picturebook

How Much Can A Picture Book Do?

update 01/17/16: Scholastic is no longer distributing this title. 

The picture book, as a form, has been around for years, and has contributed to literature some of its most stunning masterpieces, in terms of both text and illustration. No one can dare deny the genius of Sendak, Kraus, Keats, Williams, or Raschka.

The picture book can do many things, and tell many stories, yet on the whole is often closer to poetry than to prose, even when a narrative is involved; with only 28 to 30 pages for actual story, the best picture books include meaning and poetry with their covers, end papers, and even in dedications and author’s notes.

The realm of picture books is vast; it contains multitudes. Yet, how much can these slim volumes be expected to reveal and share? Can every story be told well and accurately (and by accurately I include emotional as well as factual or historical accuracy) within the constraints of the form? Just as a poet knows when to use a sonnet, villanelle, or haiku, should an author know when to choose between a picture book, a chapter book, or a biography?

I ponder these questions because of a new title that is generating a lot of discussion, A Birthday Cake for George WashingtonI have not had a chance to review this book myself, so I am only going on reviews and descriptions– there has been much written on it already, including essays by both its author and editor, and a response from the publisher, wherein they sort of admit that the book might fall short of its intended aim:

Because we know that no single book will be acceptable to every reader, we offer many other books and resources that address slavery and Black history here and here.

The author, Ramin Ganeshram, certainly seems to have done an immense amount of research, yet one review notes that there are no sources cited in the actual book.

Ganeshram defends the upbeat, positive tone of the book and its cheerful (and admittedly beautiful) illustrations thusly:

Bizarrely and yes, disturbingly, there were some enslaved people who had a better quality of life than others and “close” relationships with those who enslaved them. But they were smart enough to use those “advantages” to improve their lives.

It is the historical record—not my opinion—that shows that enslaved people who received “status” positions were proud of these positions—and made use of the “perks” of those positions. It is what illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton calls out in her artist’s note as informing her decision to depict those in A Birthday Cake For George Washington as happy and prideful people.

This is not something I will endeavor to dispute. Slavery was an immense, complex, and shameful time in our history, and like any other grand horror, the feelings it inspires, in both those who lived through it and those who can only learn about it through other channels, including testimony, biography, and yes, even art, will not be easily or neatly categorized.

Ganeshram goes on to write:

In a modern sense, many of us don’t like to consider this, fearing that if we deviate from the narrative of constant-cruelty we diminish the horror of slavery. But if we chose to only focus on those who fit that singular viewpoint, we run the risk of erasing those, like Chef Hercules, who were remarkable, talented, and resourceful enough to use any and every skill to their own advantage.

I do not fault the author, illustrator, and editor for wanting to explore this facet of an American tragedy, or even this facet of Black history. There is a definite need for books that reflect diverse experiences. The black experience is about so much more than just slavery or the civil rights movement, and even within those historical narratives, I’m sure opinions and feelings on the situations varied widely.

But here’s the thing: just last year a textbook was published that called slaves brought over from Africa “workers.” This usage slipped past countless editors and educators, only to be caught by a boy named Coby as he read the textbook in his classroom. This term was used on a page discussing “patterns of immigration.” Now, slanting enforced capture and kidnapping as “immigration” is offensive and inaccurate, no matter how you try to slice it.

This indicates that in many ways, many children–and adults–are still not learning about or aware of the accurate history of what happened during slavery, and many (white) people in power are still deeply in denial about it:

Still, Ratliff, a Republican, found 16 other references to slavery in the geography book that he believes were accurate. He says the story of that one, problematic caption has “gotten blown out of proportion.”

Dean-Burren disagrees. She’s concerned about the words textbooks use — or don’t — to teach our nation’s rich history. Still, she’s proud of her son and the lesson he’s learned.

In this light, can we reasonably expect any picture book, no matter how well-intentioned or well-researched, to do justice to this infinitely complicated subject?

We could contrast this effort with a picture book that has been well-reviewed and well-received– Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad*.

Kirkus describes Henry’s Freedom Box thusly:

Related in measured, sonorous prose that makes a perfect match for the art, this is a story of pride and ingenuity that will leave readers profoundly moved, especially those who may have been tantalized by the entry on Brown in Virginia Hamilton’s Many Thousand Gone: African Americans from Slavery to Freedom (1993). (emphasis mine)

Ganreshram places Henry’s Freedom Box and other picture books like it in this context:

In the sadly not-so-distant past, enslaved people were often depicted in children’s literature as childlike, foolish, or happily insensible of their condition.

Counteracting the industry’s previous wrongs, recent books like Dave The Potter, Henry’s Freedom Box, and The Story of African Americans have been gorgeous, intense and…pervasively somber. These depictions lend legitimate gravitas to their subjects—but the range of human emotion and behavior is vast, and there is room in between how the literary world depicted historical African American characters [then?] and how it does now.(I think perhaps she’s missing a “then” in that sentence)

 

Again, not having read Ganreshram’s book, I can only surmise certain things, and it seems like she’s saying her book is an update because Hercules is aware of his condition (that condition being slavery), but is making the best of it anyway. Which is not, I suppose, a wholly untenable approach to take in a story. After all, didn’t Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl detail how she made the most of a horrific situation?

Yet– consider the formats. Anne Frank’s work was a diary, consisting of hundreds of pages, allowing her narrative, characters, and setting the time to bloom and be fully explored. The complexity of her situation is given the time and the space to develop, giving us a fuller picture of what was happening, and providing us the context required to understand her and her story.

Within the constraints of a picture book, I think Ganreshram is hard pressed to succeed in her mission, no matter how well-intentioned, and thusly Vanessa Brantley-Newton’s beautiful artwork will also suffer within the context. I just don’t think that the complexity of Hercules’ story is possible to condense into the poetry of a picture book at this moment in time.

I think those “pervasively somber” books are much more successful because they have a unified vision for the work. The story and art work in tandem, evoking the sorrow and sometimes horror of what they describe, whereas A Birthday Cake For George Washington is trying to have its cake and eat it, too, by calling Hercules a slave yet not indicating any of the darker emotions that entails, and having no tension between the art and the text.

I believe that the story of Hercules is an important one, and deserving to be told; but I don’t think that the picture book format, as versatile, diverse, and wonderful as it is, is up to the task of this complex narrative and character.

*Henry’s song inspired another picture book telling, Freedom The Song: The Story of Henry “Box” Brown. Even in 1849 it was included in a book of children’s stories:Screenshot 2016-01-16 09.07.14

THIS LITTLE

This Little Light of Mine

Not too long ago there was a discussion in the Storytime Underground Facebook group about whether or not to read the book This Little Light of Mine in storytime. This post isn’t about that, though; the discussion was civil, people made their cases, people made decisions based on their best judgment and what worked for them.

No, this post is about some feelings and thoughts that I had after researching the book, and the song that it was based on.

This little light of mine
I’m going to let it shine
Oh, this little light of mine
I’m going to let it shine
Hallelujah
This little light of mine
I’m going to let it shine
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine

 

I’m not going to make it shine
I’m just going to let it shine
I’m not going to make it shine
I’m just going to let it shine
Hallelujah
I’m not going to make it shine
I’m just going to let it shine
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine

Out in the dark
I’m going to let it shine
Oh, out in the dark
I’m going to let it shine
Hallelujah
Out in the dark
I’m going to let it shine
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine

Looking over my visual resume recently, I realized that I have 15 years of work experience,  with nine of those years having been spent in libraries; all of it I’ve spent working with children and their families. I’ve served a wide range of communities in a variety of positions. I’ve presented hundreds of programs and touched thousands of lives. Families and coworkers from jobs years past on that timeline still remember me, still talk about me, sometimes even still miss me.

I’m sure many will look at my career arc and consider me successful, which I would agree with; I have nothing to complain about. I’ve achieved many things, and I can confidently say that I do good work that I’m proud of.

Yet ever since I first read “Andrea Del Sarto” in college, I’ve been haunted by this line:

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?

No matter what I achieve, I still feel as though there is more I could do (cue “there’s a million things I haven’t done”), both in terms of my career and my creative pursuits. I used to have no problem letting my light shine; in fact, just the opposite–I couldn’t turn it off.

 giphy.gif

But lately…over the past few years, I haven’t felt very shiny. I feel like my light has definitely dimmed. I’ll occasionally work on projects in bursts of productivity, but these bursts are few and far between these days.

There isn’t any easy answer. I don’t know if it’s depression or burn out or getting older and less scrappy or a little bit of all of the above. I do know that I don’t necessary like it, but then again,  I don’t know what to do about it.

There are no easy answers, but for me, these days there is one persistent question:

What is it all for?

 

 

resting reference face

Look Like A Librarian

No, this is not a post about wardrobe or anything like that. Just so you know. I also started writing it two years ago.

I took the train to work today because my car will not start thanks to the polar vortex. As I was heading to the exit as my stop approached, a young woman asked me, “Can you tell me what stop this is?” I told her and then she asked, “Is the next stop X?” And I told her it was. She thanked me and I went on my way.

This happens to me quite often. I’ll be walking down the street and be asked for directions, or wandering in Target and be asked if I know where something is. I’ll be asked for directions in cities I don’t even live in. If I can, I help.

But, why does this happen?

Do I have resting reference face?

Do you?

1

Every Action Has an Equal, Opposite Reaction

In my post Where Do The Teens Go? I posited a Youth Services Department which is formed around a core staff of four two-person teams. Ideally they would all be full time, but that might vary depending on the size of your community and the number of schools you serve. Certainly some of the positions could blend, depending on the interests and skill sets of the people you hire. But I’m pretty adamant that positions be either devoted to in-library work or devoted to outreach, with collaboration led by the appropriate lead. This is because outreach is a full-time job, or if it’s only part-time, it should be the primary focus of the staff member.

Why so much outreach? I’ve always been a firm believer in outreach, because I’ve seen it be successful from both sides of the equation. I’ve been the in-library person benefiting from excellent outreach efforts, and I’ve also been the outreach person who brings people into the library and acts as a recognized face from one place (school) to another (the library).

In my experience, here are all the things a person in any outreach position must do, and if you don’t think these duties deserve a full-time staff member, or at least a staff member dedicated to it, I don’t even know:

  • Reaching out–writing emails and making phone calls can take up a lot of your time, and if you have too many other duties (desk, collection development, in house programs) you’re going to play a lot of phone tag and a lot of email threads are going to get buried in the process.
  • Making connections–I’ve come up with a lot of great ideas just hanging out and chatting with teachers during a program break or while having lunch with them in the staff room during a day of multiple book talks. Making the time to just chat is very important, and often overlooked when people consider outreach positions.
  • Researching community partners–like you research a company before you apply for a job, research potential partners so you can propose projects and programs that meet their needs
  • Remembering names.
  • Booking visits–you need to check your calendar, check everything else, offer times, accept counter-offers, and be prepared for changes. If you have your outreach person staffing a desk for fifty percent of their work time, good luck. You’re setting them up for failure.
  • Tapping appropriate collaborators from the community and your own staff–I’m not great at everything (I know, shocker!) so when certain events come up on my radar, I’ll often reach out to my ever-widening network and see if I can’t collaborate and make the experience that much better for the entity I’m working with.
  • Being in the library– yes, I just said you’re setting your staff up for failure, but only if you take up too much of their time with duties other than outreach. Having some desk time, and helping with some in-library programs, is great for an outreach person, because the people they see in the community will be really excited to see them in the library. Countless times I’ve been on the reference desk and kids have walked by, staring at me wide-eyed, and then they’ll finally remember why they know me and yell, “You came to my school!” I once even had a child formally introduce me to his parent, by saying, “Dad, this is my librarian who comes to my school.” We shook hands and then I died.

Essentially, and to vastly simplify (for the sake of a Hamilton reference), outreach staff are the Hamiltons of the library, and in-library staff are the Burrs.

vdzw32veqrgoq

You see, outreach staff should be constantly (non-stop?) going out, talking, telling everyone about the library and what it has and what it can do, and yes, sometimes they should talk less and smile more, so they can learn from their community partners.

On the other hand, in-library staff can be a little more laid back–they can wait for users to come in, after they’ve been charmed by the outgoing Hamilton approach.

While both approaches can yield results, neither is as successful as when they both work together–which means no one in the library has to throw away their shot.

 

 

 

Where Do the Teens Go-

Where Do The Teens Go?

Where do the teens go? (saxophone solo) Where do the teens go?

I’ve long had a belief that service and programs in the public library, especially Youth Services (if you define Youth Services as 0-18), is a conveyor belt of sorts. We start with children in lapsit storytime, and our ultimate goal should be to create life-long library users who stay with us well into young adulthood.

I think that most public libraries do a pretty good job of getting kids from storytime to elementary programming, but start to lose those same kids during middle school. In my experience, middle school is rarely anyone’s favorite group or specialty. They’re hard to work with. They’re like toddlers, but bigger, and with more hormones. They’re trying on different personalities from day to day, and again, like toddlers, like to say no and push boundaries.

But you don’t have to (just) take my word for it!

The emergence of the middle school movement in the 1960s represented a milestone in the history of Human Development Discourse. This movement recognized that young adolescents are not simply older elementary school students nor younger high school students, but that there are dramatic changes that occur during this time of life requiring a radically different and unique approach to education. Middle school educators understood that the biological event of puberty fundamentally disrupts the relatively smooth development of the elementary school years and has a profound impact upon the cognitive, social, and emotional lives of young teens. In line with this important insight, they saw the need for the provision of special instructional, curricular, and administrative changes in the way that education takes place for kids in early adolescence. Among those changes were the establishment of a mentor relationship between teacher and student, the creation of small communities of learners, and the implementation of a flexible interdisciplinary curriculum that encourages active and personalized learning. (emphasis added)

I argue that middle school students require a unique approach to library programs, spaces, and services. Librarians for the middle school set can, and do, apply these same principles–a mentor relationship, small communities of learners, programming to appeal to interdisciplinary interests and encourage personalized learning.

Yet many libraries consider “Teen Services” 6th-12th grade, which is (in my opinion) a ridiculous age spread. A sixth grader has as much in common with a 12th grader as a baby does with a 5th grader. But so many libraries wonder why they are grappling with the question, “Where are the teens?” Can you imagine anyone being happy with your programs if you had lapsit lego time, or booktalked board books to a fourth grader? No! Then why do we do this disservice to our varied teen audiences?

But this approach doesn’t work for older teens who are in high school, which is where the 6th-12th “teen” melting pot really becomes sticky. 9th-12th graders are more firmly aware of who they are and what they want, and they have an increasing amount of autonomy.

By high school, youth are largely independent, making their own decisions about how to spend their time and exercising their increasing freedom. They are starting to think about what will come next for them postgraduation, and many have developed interests that they can pursue in youth programs. As a result, high school programs’ efforts to retain youth are different from those of middle school programs, as a provider acknowledged:

‘I think the high school programs are easy to run. I think a lot of times you have kids in a middle school program who may not want to be there, but it’s used as a form of afterschool day care by the parents who are working. I think once you get to the high school level, most of the participants really are motivated to be there, and they’re doing it because they want to—not because they have to.’ (emphasis added)

While librarian positions for early childhood have become more targeted–many libraries have a staff person in charge of early literacy programming, which is sometimes held by someone with a master’s in early childhood rather than an MLIS–and programs and materials for the elementary set have never been lacking, the expectation that one (or no!) teen librarian or a youth librarian who is interested in teens can adequately serve the entire population of sixth to twelfth graders in any one community is a bar set impossibly high.

(A lengthy aside, that perhaps deserves its own post: Serving audiences by age groupings is a popular model in libraries, and while it is a fine model, we must never forget that within any age group–from middle schoolers to senior citizens–there is a diverse range of interests and abilities, and when we program and develop collections, we need to hone in even further– twenty-something tech geeks are not interested in the same programs and resources as twenty-something organic backyard farmers. While age groupings can be a starting point, don’t forget to dig deeper.)

This also ties in to the discussion about where the Teen Librarian/staff should exist within the library ecosystem. In my experience, staff for teens are either part of Adult Services or Youth Services. (Although, sadly, sometimes there is no staff at all explicitly devoted to teen services, but just a children’s librarian or adult librarian with an interest in programming and/or literature for teens.) Both placement options have benefits and drawbacks.

I think in terms of collections, having teen books–and in this article, teen books are aimed at 9th grade and older–closer to the adult collection makes more sense. No self-respecting 16 year old wants to have to go into a children’s section for their reading material.

However, when it comes to programming, I believe that teen staff are better served by the programming know-how and collaborative nature of a youth department.

In my ideal and imaginary library, there would be the following full time positions, in terms of teams:

Middle School Team

  • Middle School Librarian (5th or 6th-8th, depending on where local middle schools put 5th grade; partners with Elementary staff for 5th grade)
  • Middle school outreach librarian (5th or 6th-8th grade, partners with Elementary staff for 5th grade)

High School Team

  • High School Librarian (9th-12th, but collaborates with Middle School staff for 7th/8th grades)
  • High School outreach librarian (9th to 12th, but again collaborates with Middle School Staff for 7th/8th grades)

Early Literacy Team

  • Early literacy librarian (0-3rd grade, partners with Elementary staff for 3rd grade, and with High School staff to provide services to teen moms/parents)
  • Early literacy outreach (0-3rd grade,partners with Elementary staff for 3rd grade, and with High School staff to provide services to teen moms/parents)

Elementary Team

  • Elementary librarian (3rd-5th, partners with both Early Literacy librarians for 3rd grade programming, and Elementary outreach librarian for 4th/5th)
  • Elementary outreach librarian (3rd-5th, again partners with both Early Literacy librarians for 3rd grade, and Elementary librarian for 4th/5th)

Further, the Adult Department would have a Young Adult librarian for 12th grade to early post college, and they’d collaborate with the High School Team.

Why does the Early Literacy team go up to third grade? Because early childhood is defined as such; when you are certified to teach Early Childhood, it goes up to 3rd grade/eight years old. Further, 3rd grade is typically a fraught time for emerging readers, and they can often use the support and skills provided by targeted early literacy programming.

I’ve lovingly collected several articles and posts for you about this very subject. Go forth, read, and learn.

3rd grade reading success matters

Grade level reading- 3rd grade

Early Warning: Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters

Early Warning Confirmed 

Middle School Students and Their Developmental Needs

Can’t Stop Talking Social Needs of Students in the Middle

Middle Schools Need to Focus on Caring and Connections

Developmentally Responsive Middle Grades Practices

Characteristics of Middle Grade Students

Developmental Differences Between Middle School and High School Programs – Engaging Older Youth: Program and City-Level Strategies

Are Middle School and High School Students Really That Different? Observations and Advice From MS/HS Teachers

Working with Middle and High School Friends: What Are the Developmental Differences?

Middle Schools: Social, Emotional, and Metacognitive Growth

CONNECT, CREATE, COLLABORATE: TEEN LIBRARIANS UNITE! THROW AWAY YOUR PICTURE BOOKS.