smilerats

Smile! Rats! Or, a book talk

When I book talk, I sometimes like to structure them as a sort of narrative unto themselves. I thought I’d attempt to write out an example for you.

When I book talk Smile, I like to throw in my own personal story about when I was a kid and I needed a retainer because one of my front teeth threatened to grow straight out, and my other front tooth looked like it was going to grow straight back.

Which leads naturally into my favorite fact from Oh, Rats!, about how if rats don’t constantly chew things they run the risk of having their teeth grow until they pierce their brains.

Then I like to talk about The Twyning and the urban legend of rat kings (google at your own risk), at which point I will tell the kids (usually middle schoolers) the urban legend about the people who bring home a pet from a foreign country thinking it is an ugly dog but turns out to be a rat.

How do you structure your book talks? Have you tried an approach like this? Let me know!

 

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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)

 

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No, really, let kids choose what they read

In case you need something to tide you over while you wait for your copy of Reading Unbound to arrive, here are some more quotes about why we need to let kids choose what they read.

We want to help our students fall in love with books in ways that foster a life-long devotion to reading. So what should schools do? We think the implications of our research are manifold, but two seem especially compelling.  First, our data make clear that educators should consider interpretive complexity in concert with textual complexity, a centerpiece of the Common Core State Standards.  Every text our participants read—from graphic novels to dark fiction to Harry Potterrequired sophisticated strategies for entering a story world and absorbing the twists and turns of the plot line and character relationships.  All fostered deep intellectual engagement.

Our data also convinced us of the importance of choice. Students should have regular opportunities to behave the way adult readers do and choose their own reading.   They know the kinds of texts from which they will take pleasure. At the same time, teachers should expand the possibility of pleasure by introducing students to new books they might not select on their own.

http://edublog.scholastic.com/post/why-kids-need-read-what-they-want

I love that this quote illustrates the role that “gate-keepers” should have–opening gates rather than closing them. Once a kid has read through everything they could find on their own, teachers and librarians can help them find the hidden treasures that will still meet their needs.

Reading is indeed crucial to success in school and in careers.  But we worry that discussions of reading, especially public policy discussions, focus almost exclusively on its utilitarian value. What’s missing is the pleasure readers derive from the reading they do.

http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/11/the-most-important-lesson-schools-can-teach-kids-about-reading-its-fun/281295/

Again, people making these policy decisions know very little about children and child development; however, I do believe that Common Core, with its breadth of text types, actually encourages what I believe is important–giving children a wide variety of choices when it comes to what they read. Have you ever had it suggested that novels in verse are better for struggling readers because of the white space and shorter length? Then what about play scripts? White space abounds, it is mostly dialogue, and it very pointedly tells you what you’re seeing–but then again, it’s like a graphic novel without the images, and your imagination needs to fill in the pictures. HOW AWESOME IS THAT?

If I were Queen of the World, I would decree that all students be given the gifts of time and books they want to read throughout their schooling, and all pre-readers would have an adult who would read aloud to them everyday. Through independent reading children gain a wealth of background knowledge about many different things, come to understand story and non-fiction structures, absorb the essentials of English grammar, and continuously expand their vocabularies. Many also remember visually how to spell words. In a nutshell, the habit of reading does as much, if not more, than Direct Instruction and the rigorous demands of the Common Core. All without boring kids to death or persuading them that they’re dumb.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/09/08/why-kids-should-choose-their-own-books-to-read-in-school

Yes.

Years ago, I received a phone call from my godson’s mother. She said, “I know you told me to wait, but David is reading Harry Potter on his own.” David was in kindergarten. David read Harry Potter at 5 for the plot. He reread it at 10 for the plot, characters and emotional truths. He reread the entire series repeatedly the summer he was 13, to his mother’s dismay. “Can’t you get him to read something else?!” I didn’t even try.

NY Times Room for Debate

Yes. The importance of re-reading. I know, I know, there are so many books! But every time you re-read something, you gain something new. It’s magical.

The latest salvo comes from a survey released late last week by Scholastic Corp., a publisher of popular children’s books, which suggests that middle and high school students who have time to read books of their own choosing during the school day are also more likely to read frequently for pleasure.

“For us, choice is key,” said Kyle Good, a spokeswoman for Scholastic. “When you let kids choose the books they want to read, they’ll be voracious readers.”

In the survey, 78 percent of students, who read frequently for fun (at least five days a week), said they had time to read a book of choice during the school day. By contrast, 24 percent of infrequent readers — those who read for fun less than one day a week — said they had time to read a book of choice during the school day.

Chicago Tribune

Review of Reading Unbound, with links to supplementary material 

Top 5 Reasons to let kids choose their own books

 

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Why Kids Need to Read What They Want

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Is this how we want kids to act when it comes to reading? / flicker, C. Bitner

In the most recent edition of Cover to Cover by K.T. Horning, there are no early childhood, middle grade, or ya distinctions in books for children. Encompassing fiction and nonfiction, the breakdown is:

  • Picture books (including board books)
  • Readers/Beginning Readers/Easy Readers
  • Transitional books
  • Chapter books

That’s it. We have those formats, and within those formats, every genre is covered, for ages birth to teen. (Oh, but wait–where should graphic novels go? I’d include them with chapter books, honestly; the art in a graphic novel serves as a concurrent visual text, in my opinion. Or, heck, let’s put them in with picture books, maybe? I don’t have all the answers, clearly.)

In my ideal, imaginary library, this is how it would be– those formats would be organized, so kids who are being read to can find board and picture books, pre-readers can find the books they need, transitional readers the same, and then chapter books for independent readers who can make their own choices (with guidance from their parent/guardian and, ideally, a librarian). There would be a call number, and no other designations– no guided reading, or any of that other stuff. Just books and excellent staff and seemingly limitless choices. (I’m getting chills just writing about it.)

Does a library like this exist? Probably not. Although my personal library is like this. I’m sure everyone’s personal library is like this. So why do we insist that youth follow dozens of arbitrary guidelines when it comes to the stories they get to read?

Anyway. This summer I tried something different with our suggested reading book lists, in an attempt to create a small scale version of this literary utopia. I wanted to move away from parents just grabbing the list of their child’s grade, and slavishly following those suggestions we’d made, with the best of intentions. Instead of lists covering 2 grade levels, as had been the practice in the past, I had:

  • Pre-readers (babies-Kindergarten): includes board and picture books, all genres
  • Beginning readers (K-3rd): easy/beginning readers, all genres
  • Transitional Third Grade reads: transitional chapter books, all genres
  • Third Grade and Up: picture, beginning, transitional, and chapter books, all genres

Now, there isn’t just one Third Grade and Up list, oh no. There were several, with titles like:

  • Smile Diary: books for Wimpy Kid and Telgameier Fans
  • Murder and Mayhem: stories that are scary and thrilling
  • WONDERing what to read next: Wonder readalikes
  • Full STEAM ahead: books for kids who like to tinker and create
  • Myths, Magic and More: fantasy, science fiction, and the just plain strange
  • Game On: books for gamers
  • Tell Me A Story: books about the magic of storytelling
  • That’s Funny: Books to make you laugh
  • Can You Believe It?: Books to make you see the world in a different way

The books were listed not in alphabetical order, but rather in order of literary and thematic complexity.

To explain, each list had an introduction like this:

3rd Grade and Up

Murder and Mayhem: stories that are scary and thrilling!

If you enjoy scary stories, thrilling tales of true crime, forensic science, and the unexplained, then these books are for you!

Read from the beginning of the list when you’re short on time but still want a good story. Read from the end of the list when you’re up for a more textually and thematically challenging experience.

Not every book on every list will be right for your child. If you have questions about any title, please see [library] staff for guidance.

Third grade and up meant just that: independent readers from third to twelfth grades (or beyond! Mom and Dad, you can read these books too!) could read these books, all of which were chosen from our children’s department collection. I wanted to do this so that an older student who wasn’t reading at grade level wouldn’t be stigmatized by reading from a list that was clearly marked for a younger age. By having only a lower limit, rather than a lower and upper, the list was more open to more readers. And by keeping the selections limited to our children’s department, we were still helping parents make appropriate choices for their child (advocate for freedom that I am, I still want to make things easier for parents, so I’m not going to hand them a third grade and up list with really intense themes and situations).

Oh, and another cool thing–the books on these lists were jointly nominated by my library staff as well as school librarians from our main school district, and they used these lists as their district’s recommended summer reading. How great is that? School librarians got to suggest awesome books that they loved, while I did all the grunt work of collating and organizing them, and our wonderful graphics department made them into beautiful brochures.

Ultimately, I wanted these lists to provide some guidance, while also encouraging kids and parents to use library staff to help them find the  best book for them.

For teens we had 7th grade and up lists, with items exclusively from the teen collection. (Now, ideally I’d want to include picture and other books, but with display and cataloging restraints, this just wasn’t possible; and, again, these teens could also enjoy all the books on the third grade and up lists.)

For teens, our themes were:

  • Social Justice: books about making the world a better place
  • Not Okay: readalikes for The Fault in Our Stars 
  • Get Real: Realistic fiction and memoirs
  • Myths, Magic and More: Fantasy, sci-fi, and speculative fiction

I have to say, the impetus for this project was the book Reading Unbound: Why Kids Need to Read What They Want—and Why We Should Let Them. We actually recommended this title to parents in our lists, and amazingly, the book got checked out. How many people actually read it, I don’t know, but it just goes to show that if you make something available, people will take advantage.

I was concerned about confusion and push back–would parents get on board? Would they understand it? Was I creating a problem where there wasn’t one?

I don’t think so. I actually think these lists have been doing what they are meant to do–broaden the scope of what kids read, and providing guidance while also encouraging choice.

Now, summer’s not over, so the verdict isn’t completely in yet, but so far I’m going to call this a success. Books are still getting checked out at a rapid clip, I’ve heard people express delight at the themes, and so far no one has been upset that a book about the Lizzie Borden case was on the “Murder and Mayhem” list (really, with a title like that, I was suspecting parents of sensitive kids would know to steer clear).

What do you think? How do you handle suggested reading/passive reader’s advisory?

 

 

 

 

stuck

Stuck in the Middle With You

I don’t like the term middle grade, even though I love a lot of books that fall under that umbrella. Middle grade books are not for middle schoolers, but the confusing terminology flummoxes a lot of teachers and parents.

If you’re also unclear, here’s the breakdown:

Middle grade= a publishing classification; literature for 8-12 year olds.

Middle school=students in 6th-8th grade, typically. Ages 12-14.

Tweens: pre-adolescents (preadolescene being “a stage of human development following early childhood and preceding adolescence), generally between the ages of 10-13. Blend of “in between” and “teen.” Used as a term for reckless twenty something Hobbits in Tolkien’s books.

Some middle schoolers are tweens, but not all tweens are middle schoolers.

Middle schoolers are more likely to be reading teen books, occasionally enjoying middle grade choices (Wonder and The One and Only Ivan are a couple of MG titles that I know appeal to middle school students).

This is a great article that breaks down the difference between middle grade and young adult books. I particularly like this section:

MG vs. YA Readers
Middle-grade is not synonymous with middle school. Books for the middle-school audience tend to be divided between the MG and YA shelves. So which shelf do those readers go to? While there is no such thing as a ’tween category in bookstores, there are degrees of maturity in both MG and YA novels that’ll appeal to the younger and older sides of the middle-school crowd. A longer, more complex MG novel with characters who are 13 could take place in middle school and be considered an “upper-MG novel.” But the material can’t be too mature. It’s still an MG novel, after all, and most readers will be younger. Writing a sweeter, more innocent YA? Then it’s pretty likely that your readers will be ’tweens, that your characters should be around 15 years old, and that your book will be marketed as a “young YA.”

While it’s useful for you to understand these nuances as you craft your story and relate to your true audience, when it comes time to submit, don’t go so far as to define your novel as upper MG or younger YA in your query. That’s already pointing to a more limited readership. Instead, just stick to calling it either MG or YA when you submit, and let an interested agent draw conclusions about nuances from there.

So here’s my philosophy (which I’ll expound on further and in more detail in an upcoming blog post): I think for children and teens, programs and spaces need to be clearly defined and specifically tailored; baby lapsit is so very different than a teen maker program, and so it goes for every developmental stage in between. What youth needs socially, emotionally, and physically varies greatly as they grow.

However, in terms of your collection (and here I am only concerned with what they’re reading), once a kid reaches about third grade and is an independent reader, I think things should be much more open.

What do I mean? Well, first of all, stop labeling your books. No more E for easy on the picture books, or J for juvenile, or any of that. You just have fiction and nonfiction in a variety of formats. Board books, beginning readers, and transitional books are pulled out, because those are very tailored to their audience for developmental reasons. The rest? All one big pile.* Picture books through chapter books, arranged by genre, perhaps. But no other labels. Have a kids’ collection that goes up to, say, sixth grade, and then a teen collection that’s 7th grade and up. But both collections include picture books.

Is this practical? Probably not. Would any library dare do this? Probably not. Is it a better way to organize literature and resources for youth? I believe so.

Stay tuned for another post about this idea of “reading unbound.” In the mean time, read more about  those tricky tweens and how to serve them.

The Trouble with Tweens

Tweens, teens, and twentysomethings: a history of words for young people

What do Tweens Want? 

Teen/Tween Spaces

Teen Space Guidelines (does there need to be one for Tweens?)

Sign up for SLJ’s “Be Tween” newsletter.

*an organized, and definitely not literal, pile.

Wolf Hollow review

Wolf HollowWolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

Cross The Bad Seed with To Kill A Mockingbird and add a dash of Night of the Hunter, King Lear (“I would fain learn to lie,” says the Fool), and Rebecca (the first line of this book is just as haunting as “Last night I dreamt of Manderly again”), and the result will most likely be this taut, beautiful terror of a book. I finished it all in one night because I couldn’t stop reading.

This is definitely getting book-talked in the fall of 2016. The students are going to be clamoring for this one.


Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

View all my reviews

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

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.

author, author!

The past couple of conferences I went to, there was some chatter about author visits at libraries—namely, how do you get anyone to care about and come to your author event? (I’m assuming here you’ve found the money already. Top notch authors are almost always going to be quite expensive, so start budgeting now and looking for financial partners. Also, start locally if you’ve never done an author visit before. Cutting down on travel costs cuts the budget significantly). I’ve done a few author events at my library, and seen other well done events in action, so I thought I would share some of my hard earned wisdom with you, my dear and lovely readers.

1) Choose your author wisely.
Not every great book has an author worth visiting with. Harsh, but true. When selecting an author to bring to your community, you need to consider reputation, charisma, and speaking skills just as much as you consider the quality and appeal of the author’s work. People have already spent time with the book(s). You want to get them excited about spending time with a person. When choosing an author, make sure to….

2) Consider your audience.
Think about who your author writes for– lower elementary, upper elementary, middle school, or teen. Sometimes there is overlap. Andrea Beaty has both picture books and chapter books, and is great for Prek-5th presentations. Adam Selzer has middle grade, middle school, and upper YA novels, as well as adult nonfiction about Chicago history and hauntings that appeal to teens /and/ adults. You really want to target your audience, because this will tie in so much to your promotion of the event. You can have an author present for more than one audience, but make sure those events are clearly delineated. Also, think about your community– is it conservative? Artistic? Older? Younger? Make sure you have a population that will be interested in the person you’re bringing in.

3) Promote.
This seems like a “duh” moment but it’s very important. It’s not enough to put a few lines in your newsletter or a picture on your webpage. You need to hustle. This is not a drill, people. Most authors worth having are going to be expensive, and you want to make the turn out worth everyone’s while. So target your audience. For me, I hit the middle schools–and I mean hit. At the two middle schools in our main district, I physically went to the school and presented a 15 minute, high impact promotion about the author to as many kids as I could. (At one school, I managed to see every student during the day; I was on my feet from 8-3 and it was amazing.) I’ll talk more about my specific promotion strategies at the end.

4) Get a bookseller.
If everyone’s done their job, there will be a hunger for your author’s work, and people will want to get their copies signed and maybe even take a picture. Also, you want your authors to make money so they can keep writing books. Partnering with a local, indie bookseller is imperative. Further, booksellers often have insider knowledge about when and where certain authors will be touring– if you form a strong partnership, oftentimes a bookseller can get you free author appearances for your library. They are more likely to do this for you if you have a record of bringing out good crowds for events, which you will if you follow these guidelines.

5) Make the event an EVENT.
You’re essentially throwing a party, so throw a damn party. Have a cake decorated to look like the book cover. If there’s a special or unique food mentioned in the book(s), serve it. Decorate. Have music that relates to the tone of the book playing before the start. Make sure to introduce your author with appropriate excitement and pomp. Hype everyone up. Throw your hands in the air. Whatever you have to do, do it. Bust out your best Neil Patrick Harris hosting the Tonys here, because that’s what it deserves.

Let’s walk through an example of an author visit that I worked on.

ADAM GIDWITZ!

860661_515247835185202_1408791629_o1) Choose your author wisely.
Adam’s visit to my library and local schools was already in the works when I began my job last fall, but I quickly jumped in and started implementing my master plan. Adam is a perfect visiting author. He is energetic, engaging, interesting, and an excellent performer. His books–A Tale Dark and Grimm, In A Glass Grimmly, and The Grimm Conclusion–are excellent and have high appeal factors for a wide variety of readers. Adam was also extremely gracious and easy to work with, providing me and my coworkers with lots of information we could use to promote his visit– including making a short video just for our middle schoolers.

2) Consider your audience.
From working with the schools and the school staff, we knew the personalities we were dealing with, and we knew that plenty of kids would be excited about seeing Adam. Word of mouth about his books spread quickly as kids talked it up to each other. We also knew the fairy tale element–fairy tales being one of the text types in the new Common Core State Standards–would lend the presentation a whiff of educmacational value, which doesn’t hurt when talking a program up to parents.

3) Promote.
I’m lucky to have a great marketing department to work with, so they did a wonderful job of getting this event in the newsletter, on the website, and in the community (including a local newspaper blurb!) As the School Outreach Librarian, it was then my job to TAKE IT TO THE SCHOOLS. This is one of my favorite parts of the process, and while I’ve found a formula that works for me, be aware that your mileage may vary. Like any creative, personality driven library presentation you need to promote in a way that makes sense for your style, especially if you’re working with kids. You need to be genuine and genuinely enthusiastic. If you’re not, your promotion will fall flat, and no excitement will be generated.

My promotion formula is based largely on the author, as illustrated by this mostly gratuitous pie chart:

piechartStart off with a quick, punchy book talk about the author’s works. I talked up Adam’s two novels (this was before the third one was released) and also showed an awesome book trailer in German, because everything sounds more awesome in German. Then, I segued into talking about Adam as a person and an author. I gave a brief biographical sketch, including–and this is important—pictures of Adam when he was the same as the teens I was promoting the event to.

I cannot state enough how cool this is. Even the most jaded eighth grader will guffaw when shown a picture of someone in their youth. Suddenly the teens can relate just a little bit easier to this person, just by seeing their dork-tastic 90’s hair and braces. Contrast this with a picture of what the author currently looks like, just so the kids know who they will actually be seeing at the event.

Also: food. Most people are into food and get excited about it. I ask authors their favorite foods then and now. Adam’s answer for his current favorite food was blood pie. I used this heavily in my promotion. “WHAT is a BLOOD PIE?” I asked dramatically. “You’ll have to come to the event to FIND OUT. Because we will be SERVING one.” Cue 45 middle schoolers groaning excitedly about BLOOD.

All of my presentations were about 15 minutes (yep, only 15 minutes). I wanted my message to be brief and intense. Between the BLOOD PIE and Adam’s middle school picture, and a gory 3 minute retelling of Cinderella, the teens were left with strong images and a strong incentive to attend the event. You can see my keynote slides here: gidwitz copy

4) Get a bookseller.
The bookseller we brought in sold out of paperbacks and sold almost all of the rest of the stock he brought with him. This made everyone happy.

4) Make the event an EVENT.
Our attendance exceeded expectations. We were hoping for around forty five people but had over one hundred kids and teens  held in thrall by Adam’s presentation, which included a full telling of the fairytale “The Juniper Tree.” As promised, we served BLOOD PIE (berry pie with no top crust). No one was more surprised and delighted by this than Adam. “Wow. That was just something I made up,” he said. That’s me…the person who makes dreams come true. Especially when they involve BLOOD. We also had cookies decorated to look like the cover of Adam’s book. They were so gorgeous, one girl just held her cookie, crying that it was too beautiful to eat. IMG_0400 IMG_0402Not mandatory, but forcing your author to pose by the food can’t hurt. You can see the BLOOD PIE to the left (to the left, all the blood pie is on the table to the left). We also had BLOOD PUNCH because BLOOD. BLOOD YOU GUYS. This entire post could have just been the word BLOOD.

So that’s how I (and my awesome coworkers) achieved author visit success. What about you?