Out of all of Strunk and White’s solid words of advice, perhaps none need to be heeded more strongly these days than “[u]se definite, specific, concrete language.” What is more specific and concrete, Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act? Alt-right or white supremacy? Fake news or propaganda?
* * *
When I consider the power of specific language, I remember how during an exit interview after leaving a particularly abusive work environment, I had to tell the director of the library about the unethical actions of my immediate supervisor, since those actions were largely the cause of my leaving. I told the director that by not allowing me to order a certain series of books for my teen patrons, my manager was a censor, and practicing censorship. I calmly and deliberately used those words. The director said something to the effect of, oh, don’t you think the word censor is a bit strong?
I agreed. It is a strong word. Moreover, it was–and is–an accurate word.
I was escorted out of the building by the secretary. It was a glorious feeling.
* * *
To support these specific words, we will need specific–and accurate–sources. To defend these specific words, we need to accurately record any misuse or abuse against them.
This is what we’re here for, librarians, by whatever title or name you go by. This, right now, is the call we need to answer.
re: the title of this post. Years ago, almost ten, I watched a show on PBS about writing, and the only thing I remember from it is the quote “we live in a world of bad text”. I have no idea what the show was or actually about; if anyone can figure it out, let me know.
Their name is Alexander Hamilton, and don’t you forget it. In fact, you couldn’t, even if you tried. This employee doesn’t usually stay around too long, but when they’re in your organization, you can’t avoid hearing their name. They work their way into the best projects and onto the most interesting committees, and make their voice heard. If you don’t give your Alexander Hamilton enough challenges and opportunities, you’re going to lose your Alexander Hamilton.
The Work Style of the Hamilton
The Hamilton doesn’t usually come in early, but they’ll often stay late. They can’t help but overhear conversations and jump in to offer their opinion, as well as three or four observations or solutions that hadn’t been previously considered. When they’re engaged, they’re laser focused and their productivity is off the charts. When they’re bored, they can be cranky and irritable and come across as the worst employee you’ve ever had, when that is not the case at all. Keep your Hamilton engaged with high profile projects and problems that require creative solutions. Have your Hamilton work on teams that need some inspiration and energy injected into their work.
The Career Path of the Hamilton
The Hamilton moves through the ranks quickly. If they stay at an organization long-term, it’s often because opportunities for growth, challenge, and promotions are available. Hamilton starts out as a page and becomes a manager within five years, if their talent and drive are recognized and nurtured. If you ignore your Hamilton they’ll be gone within two years, if not sooner.
Managing an Alexander Hamilton
This go-getter thrives on praise, challenge, and variety. Give your Alexander Hamilton ample opportunity to try new things and fail. Let them get out in the community and make a name for themselves. You’ll never have to push your Alexander to work better or harder, you’ll just have to reign them in when their reach gets too far. Make sure your Alexander is on a team that complements them rather than competes with them. Let your Alexander be a leader for a while before giving them formal managerial or supervisory duties–they need time to figure out their style and get their attention seeking behavior out of their system.
Being Managed by an Alexander Hamilton
If your Hamilmanager has been around for a while and they’ve gained enough personal glory, they can be excellent managers, especially to other Hamiltons. If they’ve been promoted too soon, however, they’re going to compete with their employees rather than nurture them, and you’re going to end up with a dissatisfied, under-producing team. If you’re competing with your Hamilmanager, try to position yourself as a comrade rather than the competition. Ask to take on assignments or tasks that don’t interest your Hamilmanager, and that will put you in their good graces while also allowing you to gain experience.
We remove financial barriers such as fines and fees whenever possible, and make getting, having, and using a library card as frictionless as possible.
Our programs are inclusive and we strive to make accommodations whenever required.
Our collections reflect our communities both as they are and as they aspire to be. Everyone in our community, especially children, should see themselves reflected in our collections, and also have ample opportunity to experience stories from those who are unlike themselves.
Everyone benefits from libraries, whether they use them or not
Rich old white man who continually writes articles about how no one uses libraries anymore–please shut up. People who aren’t you use libraries all the time, and the information, education, and sense of belonging that they gain from those visits ultimately benefits our whole society, even you.
Make every interaction delightful, wherever it happens
We strive during each reference interaction, every readers’ advisory session, every storytime, every program, through every online social interaction or email, to delight and inspire our users. We waive fines for the single mother who doesn’t want to go back out to her car in the rain to get her credit card, and the smile of relief on her face is worth so much more than her small fine; we bring stacks of books to a reluctant reader and let them know that while these are some of our favorite books, our feelings won’t be hurt if they hate them all–because we really want them to find their next (or first) favorite book; and when first grade teachers tweet about how their students are learning to write letters, we tweet back and ask for one, and send one in return.
A degree does not a librarian make
An MLIS can be a wonderful thing. It can also be an expensive piece of paper that never really ends up making you good librarian, or gets you a job that allows you to pay off its cost before you die.
When I define librarian, I’m definitely more Urban Dictionary than Webster’s Dictionary (I still love ya, Webster). If you must, I suppose you can make the distinction of degreed librarian or put MLIS at the end of your email signature…but in the end, I don’t care. Are you passionate about stories, regardless of medium or delivery method? Are you insatiably curious and demand answers, even for questions posed by others? Do you consistently post Snopes links on your friends’ facebook pages? Do you currently or have you ever worked in a library and brought joy to those who received service from you? Congratulations–if you want to refer to yourself as such, you have my permission to call yourself a librarian.
Every library its community, and every community its library
While everyone can use every library, libraries should begin and end with their immediate communities. Not only does this make practical sense–the community’s taxes are at work within your budget, after all–it makes everything else easier.
I attended a workshop recently about design thinking for libraries, and while I can’t encapsulate everything I learned here, I do want to share a bit about one of the steps–interviewing members of your community. When your library has a problem–crowded storytimes, lackluster program attendance, drug use in the bathrooms–it’s not your library that has a problem, it is your community, and the only way to begin solving this problem is to talk to your community. Interview members of the affected groups, and from that information work in small teams to create solutions.
Some communities love their libraries, and others seem able to take the library or leave it– and sometimes this has nothing to do with the actual quality of the library. If you’re a beloved member of your community, rejoice–and keep working hard to earn that love on a daily basis. As in any loving relationship, don’t take it for granted. And if you’re still trying to earn the love of your community? Don’t fret. Go back to love # 1, lather, rinse and repeat, and you’ll get there. I promise.
Have programs throughout the month about writing picture books and board books; novels; and graphic novels. These can be as elaborate or as laid back as you desire:
Use the picture book month site to get program ideas about the importance of picture books. Programs can be for kids, parents or teachers. As a creative part of the workshop, have attendees write and illustrate their own picture books.
Make it an outreach program! Take blank picture books out to schools and talk to students about the parts of a book. Show off stellar examples of endpapers and under jacket surprises. 100 Scope Notes is a great resource for examples of picture books with hidden delights. (I’ve actually done this and it’s a joy.)
Have a display of “how to” books, and encourage patrons to stop by the check out desk to pick up their blank book to create.
Bring in speakers, including writers in all genres for all ages, either in person or via skype.
Have booktalks on exemplary books in each format, then allow for time for patrons to work on their own works.
Have children interview seniors and then have them work together to write the life story of the senior, in any format they choose: picture book bio? Memoir? Graphic memoir? Whatever! You can have anyone interview anyone–5th graders interviewing 8th graders about what middle school is like, daughters interviewing mothers, etc and so forth.
As a NANOWRIMO challenge, have participants try to condense their novel into a 32 page picture book format. I’m sure afterwards they’ll have new respect for the picture book format!
Have patrons return their finished books to a designated location, and send the books off to be cataloged and added to the collection! Kids, teens and adults will delight in coming to the library and finding their book on the shelf. Feel free to have a limited number of books eligible for this treatment, and for a limited amount of time.
The Bare Books site doesn’t have pictures of its books, only drawings, but I’ve used them multiple times and I can vouch that they are solidly constructed, wonderful items. They have better examples on their pinterest, and this blog post also has a great photo of the books in “finished” form.
If you end up doing this program, please drop me a line and let me know how it goes! I’ve only done the outreach version– I’ve love to see how it works out it in different permutations.
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 fromOh, 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 Twyningand 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!
I don’t care about STEM. Or STEAM. Or even STREAM.
I just don’t care.
Ha, no, just kidding.
Here’s what I love:
The Boombox at Skokie Public Library. They had a ton of middle schoolers who needed something to do and exposure to teach, so they decided the library could help meet that need. But the Boombox is for all ages, Kindergarten through adults, making it multi-faceted and intergenerational.
Gail Borden Library’s live video chat with an astronaut. As part of their space themed summer reading initiative, they connected kids with an astronaut, getting to ask questions about space, and science. Their summer reading program included interactive exhibits to extend the experience and further
But wait a minute Julie! Those are all STEAM programs, aren’t they? Why do you like them but say you don’t like STEM or STEAM or STREAM?
Well, you got me there. I guess I don’t hate STEM or STEAM or STREAM–as long as it’s done well. You notice I don’t mention a single 3D printer sitting idle in a back work room, or technology for technology’s sake. These three examples all show intentional, thoughtful programs and services that are more than just tech–they use tech in service of storytelling, making connections, bridging gaps, and building community.
I do hate it when STEM is promoted, funded, lauded, and idolized above all other things. Just because as a nation we’re trying to make up for a lack in one area that doesn’t mean we should focus on it to the exclusion of everything else.
How will a kid ever grow up to read a technical manual if they don’t know how to read? How will they be the next black Steve Jobs in the making if they can’t tell a compelling story to consumers and stakeholders? How will they get funding for their amazing new project if they can’t speak and write persuasively to sources of funding?
So no, I don’t really hate STEAM–I just think a lot of other things are equally important, too.
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 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?
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.
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 Potter—required 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.“
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 bookReading 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?
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.
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).
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.