libraries are not neutral spaces, and neither is the human heart

I’ve heard it in more than one training and workshop that part of customer service is when you’re faced with an unhappy or even irate patron, you should consider what has happened in their day, their week, their life, up until that very moment, that might be causing their distress. If there is an outburst, it’s very rarely about the fine or the missing item. It’s about the coffee they spilled in their car on their commute, or how their father always yelled at them when they misplaced things, and how once they had to go to school in the snow wearing only sandals because they’d lost their winter boots.

So it goes with those who work in libraries; we all have our own stories, chains of events and people that have created the person we are today. Our stories make us. Our stories are who we are. We share these narratives when appropriate, and listen to the narratives of others when required. (I’ve said before that all library service is made up of stories.)

I’ve been thinking about people and their stories very much these days. How the narratives black soldiers live can lead them to violence. How the narratives we perpetuate about the monstrosity of black men and boys leads to horrific murders that go unpunished.

I’ve heard these stories. My father had a derogatory name for Junior Mints that I won’t repeat. He also told me I could marry any man I wanted, but not a black man, because my father didn’t want any “[mixed] grandbabies.” (My father is no longer a part of my life, for this and many other reasons).

I’ve also heard other stories. My mother told me about her home ec teacher, Mrs. Hill, a woman who my mother greatly admired and adored. Hearing positive feelings for a black person was a revelation for me.

When my little brother was still very little and didn’t know much about the world, he called black people who stopped by our summer farm stand to buy fruit and vegetables “chocolate pudding people.” We watched Alex Haley’s Queen together, and when he asked me about what was happening, I talked to him as honestly and frankly about racism as  I could. He listened, and then went off to ponder some more; my mother came in and thanked me for talking to him about it.

Yet once when I was riding the bus and a black man struck up a perfectly pleasant conversation with me about chili recipes (I had a bag full of chili fixings with me, fresh from a trip to the grocery store), I was nervous and uneasy and, while not rude, not very polite, either; and to this day I can still see his expression–a mixture of resignation and anger, perhaps?

This is why we need diverse books. This is why there can never be enough. Black boys and girls need to hear stories about themselves as brave, resourceful, funny, beautiful, charming, sad, and more; and white children need to hear the same (about children who are not white). I wish I could find it written down somewhere, but at the Illinois Library Association conference, Shankar Vedantam said that it’s been shown that it is not enough to just have a black character doing something good in a story; for most audiences, that has to be explicitly pointed out for the story to have its greatest impact, on all children.

I sometimes cry on my way to work if I see a black or brown face in the cars next to me on the road, I hope that they don’t get stopped that day, or any day. I see children in the library and I want to tell them that I see them, that I have stories for them, that their stories are worth listening to.

I’m listening, no matter how much it breaks my heart.

It’s the least I can do.

image CC (Rosa Trieu/Neon Tommy)

 

Colorlicious Tea Party Storytime Special

Want to cash in on the super-popularity of Pinkalicious but don’t want to alienate boys (or, more likely, the parents of boys)? Then throw a Colorlicious party instead! Fans will still get to enjoy the sublime Pinkalicious, but with a bit of variety to cut the cloying gender paradigm.

Here’s the program we presented at my library, to the best of my recollection:

Little Blue and Little Yellow by Leo Lionni
We just did a straight up reading of this classic, which I love, love, love. Best not dwell too long on how they hugged so much they became green; that could become an awkward conversation. Sometimes I’ll ask the kids if they’ve ever been so sad that they cried themselves to pieces. I tell them I hope they never do.

Mouse Paint by Ellen Stoll Walsh, with special guest the mouse
I brought in my own personal white mouse puppet to introduce this book. As we read the story we draped him in the appropriately colored scarves. It was pretty interpretive puppet dance-tastic.

Make a Rainbow (fruit salad flannel board).
See the pictures below. Our “pot” kind of looks like a robot, so of course I made it talk in a robot voice, demanding fruit.

Make a Rainbow
(some good soul who typed out our copy made this poem all grammatical by using “have”, but the rhyme demands that you use “got.” Usually I am a grammar stickler, but poetry takes precedence, and colloquial usage is near and dear to my heart, so please, got it up here. Although the last line doesn’t rhyme with anything, but after all that vigorous stirring, you just have to hope no one notices or cares. The robot voice helps distract from the crappy lack of rhyme as well.)

Take some cherries and put them in a pot.
Stir them, stir them, stir them a lot!
Pour them out and what do you got?
The prettiest red you have ever seen!

Repeat with: oranges, lemons, limes, blueberries, and grapes. If you can’t figure out which colors go with which fruits on your own, might I suggest another line of work?

Pinkalicious!
Ah, the book we’d all been waiting for. This book was a hit with everyone.

“Sunshine, lollipops and rainbows” with shakers! (dance party)
We handed out shakers to the kids, put on this song, and busted a move. If you don’t dance in your storytimes, might I ask why you hate having fun?

And that’s it!

divulging.

Here in the ol’ intertubes, there’s been much hubub about racism and whitewashing in and on books for children and young adults. It’s probably been going on for ages, but I most keenly became aware of it when the controversy over Liar happened. That ended fairly well, with the cover ending up a bit more true-to-art than the initial image, but the fact that the issue arose at all is interesting and saddening.

I’ve made this issue personal. My nephew is bi-racial, and I think he deserves, just as much as any other child, to see himself in the literature he reads (or, at this point, has read to him). Also, as a(n unpublished) writer, I think it is disrespectful to utterly disregard what an author has put into the content of the book when creating the packaging for the outside of it.

There are a couple of new cases whitewashed covers cropping up at the moment, and I’m sure there are many, many more that are going unnoticed. I think that on this day, when we are supposedly honoring Dr. King and his work, we might want to consider why we’re allowing this to keep happening.

I don’t really have too much to say that is original, so I’ll offer a list of resrources to conversations that have already begun:

SLJ talks about mulitculuralism in children’s books.

The blog Reading in Color tackles the Magic Under Glass cover.

Color Online pokes fun at Bloomsbury’s next possible whitewashing.

This post at Chasing Ray has links to all sorts of conversations.

I will also highlight a few blogs that focus on multiculturalism in kid/yalit, in no particular order:

Black Threads in Kid’s Lit

Color Online

Reading in Color

American Indians in Children’s Literature

I’m Here, I’m Queer, What the Hell Do I Read?

Those are just a few. If you have any others, please mention them in the comments.