Out of STEAM

I have a confession to make:

I don’t care about STEM. Or STEAM. Or even STREAM.

I just don’t care.

.fin. 

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

Teen film festivals at libraries, including my own place of work. Teens get to express themselves creatively while learning a ton of applicable skills, including storytelling, dramatic structure, editing, sound design, costuming, and much more.

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.

.fin.

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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)

 

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.

Talk the Talk

Talk the Talk: The Art of Booktalking to Young Adults

Whether you’re talking to a single 12-year-old or an entire classroom of high school seniors, an effective and engaging booktalk can be a challenge. Learn best practices for presenting to young adults and how to find your finest booktalking voice. Try your hand at constructing an impromptu book talk of your very own, and leave the session with greater booktalking prowess for talking up some great reads to teens.

In October at the Illinois Library Association conference, I had the honor and the pleasure to collaborate with Alice, Katie, and Mike to talk about one of my favorite job duties: book talking to teens.

For the first seven years of my library career, I didn’t get to book talk, even during my brief tenure as a teen librarian. I was primarily an early literacy librarian, so I spent all my time reading picture books, crafting story times and other programs for young children, and occasionally doing reader’s advisory for teens on the reference desk.

So when I switched jobs in 2012, one of the things I most looked forward to was the chance to book talk, something I’d scarcely learned about in library school.

Being excited did not equal being prepared, however. I will admit, some of my first solo book talks were TERRIBLE. I talked for too long, I wasn’t familiar enough with the books (or I was talking books I wasn’t excited about), and I was talking solo. Over the last three years I’ve learned a lot through trial and error, so when Alice asked me to collaborate with her on a presentation about book talking, I was eager to share my own hard earned knowledge, and that of my collaborators as well.

While this blog post can’t replicate the awesomeness of our ILA presentation, I hope to cover some of the main points for those who attended, as well as lay it out for those of you who are just reading the post.

Who
While normally I am great at working alone–and prefer it–when it comes to book talking, I definitely want to be part of a duo at the very least. (Recently I had a book talk with four different staff members on hand, and it was amazing). When it comes to book talks, there is power in numbers, and I now do my best to avoid solo book talks that are longer than one class period.

Why talk as a team?

  1. Variety, of books and voices. We don’t all love the same books, or talk them in the same way, so students benefit from hearing a realistic fiction fan and a sci-fi fan during the same book talk session.
  2. Endurance. For my schools, it’s often easiest to schedule us to see an entire grade during one day, so having more book talkers on hand guarantees that you can get through six hours of book talks without losing your voice or your mind.
  3. Fun. With a team book talk, you can go from being a solo act to being the Smothers Brothers or Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. It’s nice to have another person to riff off of and look to, and it makes your book talks more diverse and dynamic.

Where to talk
Does anyone just, like, hold book talk programs in the library that teens will come to? I think this is probably a rarity, so most of the time I’m guessing you’re going to be book talking in a school to a class or a set of classes.

My ideal situation is book talking to one or two classes in a group, in a larger space such as the library media center or common area. I’ve grown to like having a few tables at the front where I can display my books covers out.

I also take out a mobile circulation station (laptop, hot spot, scanner) which I set up away from the book talk area, so teens can check out books they are excited about ON THE SPOT. This has changed the game when it comes to book talks– no more handing out lists and hoping they’ll come to the library to check something out, nope, if they want it they get it. (This means the number of books you bring is radically different, which I will address in the next step).

What to talk
Ideally, you’ll talk books that you have 1) read and 2) are really, really excited about. However, none of us live or work in an ideal world (if you do, you’re a lucky duck!), so sometimes we’ll have to book talk on an assigned theme, or we’ll accept a last minute book talking request and we won’t have enough new books read to fill the request, so we’ll have to fake it.

If you’re trying to talk books you haven’t read, the team and I had a few strategies to share:

  1. Read a LOT of reviews. Certain reviewers are better at indicating potential readers than others, so once you figure out those reviewers, turn to them first. Bookshelves of Doom is great for Fantasy/Horror, and Stacked is great for realistic fiction and fantasy/sci-fi. I also turn to common sense media quite a bit so I can be more certain of the content of thornier books, especially when I’m talking to sixth graders.
  2. Observe your fellow book talkers. This is another pro of talking in teams. There are some books I still haven’t read, but I’ve heard my colleagues talk about them enough that I’ve memorized their talks.
  3. Admit it! I’ve taken out a few books based solely on their covers and blurbs, so I admit this to the kids. “I haven’t had time to read this one, but it has a rabid squirrel on the cover, so I was pretty sure someone would want to read it.”

Remember the mobile circulation station I mentioned? This affects how many books we bring. We try to bring multiple copies of as many books as possible, so we can repeat book talks throughout the day. This reduces the number of unique book talks we need to prepare and present, and the physical number of books that we have to take out to a school. Each book talker generally brings out two to three large tote bags full of books, and we usually take back one or two tote bags of books that didn’t get checked out.

How to talk
The right way to  book talk is the way you feel comfortable, excited, and enthusiastic. Everything else is up to your personal preferences and strengths.

I will say this– if you’re able to take a stand up comedy class (seriously!) or another kind of live literature or storytelling class, this could improve your book talks immensely. Because really, what is a book talk other than a story about a story? And while you don’t have to be a laugh riot, the ability to land a joke can go a long way in making your book talks more enjoyable for your audience (don’t forget the teachers in the back!).

My style involves a lot of personal anecdotes. Teens are fascinated by personal narratives and making yourself even the tiniest bit vulnerable can have a huge impact on how they perceive you.

Why
Why do we book talk? To get teens to read, yes. To circulate books, yes. Book talking was created by teen librarians for teens because even in the 1920s, teens who could read were choosing not to, for many reasons. Very noble goals, and goals I try to achieve with my book talks.

I also see book talks as a way of developing relationships– with the teens, with their teachers, with the school librarians, with their school, with your coworkers. Even if teens don’t care for any of the books you talk during a particular session, with any luck they’ll realize you know a lot about books, and might come seek you out to help them find what they want to read.

So that’s the Hi, Miss Julie guide to book talking! Thanks for reading.

Read More About It!

Everyone’s favorite, wikipedia

How Did YA Become YA? (includes why book talking was created for teens)

A Chair, A Fireplace and A Tea Cozy book talks

YS Wikispaces Booktalking

Randomhouse Booktalking 

We Need Diverse Books Booktalking Kit

Storytime Opera

even cats can sing!
even cats can sing! illustration by Kyle Harter http://www.kyleharterart.com

Singing is one of those things that every human can do, but many avoid doing because they think they’re not good at it or that they have bad voices. There is no such thing as a bad voice. There are voices that people prefer to hear, but breaking things down in to good and bad–especially when you’re working with children–doesn’t do anyone any good.

Now I judge the heck out of singers. When people tell me I should audition for America’s X Factor Yodel Idol, or some other such nonsense, I want to cry. Those people aren’t singers. I don’t know what they’re doing–hollering slightly out of time, maybe, or gyrating while they emit sound waves–but that, to me, is not singing.

And there’s definitely a difference between singing on a stage, for people who might have paid to hear you sing, and singing because it feels good and it makes you happy. Ideally those singers on stage are happy when they sing, but not always.

But anyway. Singing in storytime is amazing. Singing and music can bring people together in a way unlike any other art. We know, anecdotally, that rhythm soothes and teaches—that’s why we sing nursery rhymes, and rub our baby’s back when she’s trying to fall asleep. That’s why dancing is so revitalizing for many–the rhythm does, indeed, get you. That’s why massage–the rhythmic stroking of our body–is so soothing. Science is also looking into whether or not music and rhythm can actually be used as medicine. I know that if I am having a bad day, or am stressed out, banging out some c&w rhythms on my guitar can have a positive effect on my mood.

Even without all that, singing is one of Every Child Ready to Read’s 5 skills. So there’s every reason for librarians to be singing in storytime, and programs beyond storytime as well (seriously, I played a Bob Dylan song for a group of 7th graders once and it was amazing).

“But I can’t sing!” you cry. Yes, you can, I reply. If you can talk, you can sing.

Listen. Kids don’t care. They are the perfect audience to sing to. They don’t notice if you’re pitchy, or off key. They love the sound, the rhythm, the melody, the movement. If you’re smiling and excited as you’re singing, they will love you. You will be a rock star in the eyes of toddlers.

“But you’re a singer!” you say. “It’s easy for you!”

Well, perhaps. I’m accustomed to singing, and I enjoy it. But listen– singing with kids isn’t the same as playing a set of original weepy folk songs at the coffeeshop. Firstly, I put everything in a higher key for the kids, so their piping voices can sing along more easily. I’m singing slightly above my range in every storytime, and most times my voice will inevitably break a la Peter Brady.

And no one cares. The adults will snicker if I reference Peter Brady, but no one is shocked that it happened. In fact, it sets everyone at ease and gets more people singing.

Further, the trick is to sing. Playing CDs is fine, but there’s something special about the human voice; and if you have chatty storytime parents, I find it’s much harder for them to talk through my earnest singing than it is to talk through a booming CD track. (I think Storytime Katie has written  about this but I couldn’t find the post.)

I also play guitar. Which kids like. But you know, playing basic folk guitar is not that hard. If you want to be Eric Clapton, that’s another thing. But if you want to play three chords and sing “The Wheels on The Bus”, well, that’s within everyone’s reach. And even then, kids don’t care. One time a kid completely undid the tuning on my guitar and I wasn’t able to fix it, but I played “Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed” anyway, and not a single kid noticed. They just jumped their little hearts out. Some of the parents grimaced, but, well, that’s the cost of entertaining children–sometimes you annoy the adults.

So sing in storytime! It will only bring you good things, I promise you.

Other singing in storytime stories:

If you’ve written about singing in storytime, please link in the comments and I will add it to the list!

Your silence is protection that they do not deserve

If she had lived, my mother would be turning 66 on March 2nd, 2013. She died in 2007 of an enlarged heart, which, to me, has a poetic justice to it. My mother did not give love easily, but she gave it fiercely.

My mother spent much of her life married to a man who despised her. A man who would beat her, and then turn to his youngest daughter and say, “Why are you crying? I’m doing this so you can do what you want.” A man who routinely called her stupid in front of her children. A man who, on the day the family portrait was to be taken, told her to stay home because she was too ugly to be in the picture.

His cruelty made my mother cruel for the longest time. She couldn’t beat her husband, so she beat me, instead (I was his favorite, you see). Then, in 1994, the OJ Simpson trial happened. My mother drew the parallels. She watched the trial obsessively. She drew strength from this public discussion of male power over female powerlessness. Only a few months after the trial ended, my parents divorced, my father’s attempted rape of my mother being the last straw.

It wasn’t so long ago that a husband forcing his wife to have sex would not have even been called rape. It wasn’t so long ago that women couldn’t open credit card accounts without their husband’s signature. It wasn’t so long ago that a man in a bar bought me a drink, and when I said goodnight, I was going home, he said, “I bought you drinks and that’s all I get?” (That really wasn’t very long ago; less than a year.)

We live in a culture where women are destroyed every day. A world where a nine year old black girl is called a cunt, and people laugh. A world where if we don’t laugh along with the rape jokes and the inappropriate advances, we’re called bitches, or frigid. Where if we get visibly upset, we must be “on the rag.” A man speaking loudly and emphatically about what he believes in is a man to be admired. A woman doing the same is a crazy shrew.

After the divorce, my mother was able to be kind again. She was the most polite person to those among us  whom we often look right through–waitresses, bus boys, cashiers at the grocery store. My mother had a kind word for all of them. She was a staunch advocate for her disabled son. She was the biggest fan of an awkward, chubby girl who had big dreams of making music, writing beautiful plays, and being a person of value one day. My mother loved her kids more than anything, and she loved her small group of friends, and she loved the elderly men and women she cooked for at the town nursing home. So much of her life, her love had been stymied; no wonder, in the end, she died of an enlarged heart. So full of love.

I learned from my mother how to escape. How to stand up for myself. How to believe, without outside validation, that I have worth. I deserve happiness. I deserve to have my voice heard. I deserve to have opinions.

I am a songwriter as well as a librarian. I can’t tell you how many times men have said to me, “Why don’t you write songs about something other than relationships?” Meaning, Your experiences as a woman have no value. They don’t interest me. You don’t matter.

In my work as a librarian, I am told the same thing. No one wants to hear from children’s librarians unless we’re talking about technology. You know what? I don’t care. Children don’t need technology programming. Sure, it’s nice. It’s fun. But do they need it? No. They need love. They need me to see them, and recognize them, and validate that they matter. They don’t need me to shove an iPad in their face and show them an app. They need to hear me tell them fairy tales, and nursery rhymes, and show them the way to being creative and happy human beings. There will be time enough for tech. They don’t need me to lead them to it. They will find that on their own.

But storytime, and crafts, and simply listening–this is women’s work, and therefore, has no value. And if a woman gets too big for her britches, she is harassed until she shrinks back into the shadows. Back in her place. Silenced. While men who sexually harass women are given awards. Accolades. Pats on the back.

This is larger than librarianship. This is a huge cultural problem with no easy solution. But change happens one step at a time. So I am beginning with my circles–one of those being the world of librarianship.

If you’re harassed by someone, don’t stay silent. Your silence is protection that they do not deserve. When you see misogyny and sexism running rampant, speak up. It isn’t easy. It’s hard work. It’s women’s work.

If you need me, I’ll have your back. After all, I learned from the best. My heart can hold the entire world. There’s room enough in it for you to help you be strong.

ego, thy name is librarianship

cc license photo by flickr use r zoonabar
cc license photo by flickr use r zoonabar

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I have a bit of an attention problem. No, not attention deficit– I have a need to be, if not the center of attention, at least left of center. Even though I am an introvert at heart who needs significant alone time to recharge and prepare, I am actually happiest when I am in front of a crowd. I meet this need for attention in many ways–by working in an area of librarianship that demands that I present storytimes and other programs, by being a performing songwriter on my personal time, by writing this blog. Often these endeavors are satisfying enough in themselves, but sometimes–during dark, lonely afternoons as I type up program plans, or ponder what to write about next on the blog–I crave even more attention, but I don’t know how to get it.

Doesn’t this all sound awfully conceited? I know. It does. But I’m nothing if not honest, so yes, I’ll admit to thinking I am awesome. I think I do excellent work, and have unique contributions to make, even though I don’t have a slogan or a hashtag or a large, slavish following. Sometimes I wonder if I were a man, writing about ebooks, if I’d get more attention. But since I am a lady writing mostly about playdough and early literacy, decidedly unsexy topics in librarianship (and when did “sexy” begin to equal “intriguing” or “worthwhile” or “interesting”?) I have a decidedly smaller circle of admirers and colleagues, most of whom are my fellow unsung heroes of the library world. As a children’s librarian, if you write more about how you use books with children than you do about the books and authors themselves, you don’t get as much notice.

Perhaps it is just my sensitive ego at work, but I feel like the librarian bloggers who work with children and teens and who write primarily about programs don’t get the recognition they deserve. Storytime blogs such as So Tomorrow, Awesome Storytime, Mel’s Desk, Playing by the Book, Tiny Tips for Library Fun, Bryce Don’t Play, and Storytiming provide real, concrete advice for creating worthwhile programming, which should be the bread and butter of libraries. If all of us wrote more book reviews and less about the programs we created using those books, or why we create the programs we do, perhaps we’d get more notice. If we blogged about hot button topics like e-books for babies or stripping our children’s departments down to look like futuristic lunchrooms filled with ipads, perhaps we’d get a ton of traffic. But we don’t. We write about our quiet successes and failures, about the simple craft of creating a flannel story, about what rhymes will fit with certain themes, and when we do review books, it’s always with an eye to How will I use this with a group of children? When we get dressed for work, it’s always with a thought about how easily we’ll be able to get up and down from the floor during storytime, and whether or not sweat will show if we’re doing a lot of jumping songs that day.

In a profession that’s supposedly dominated by women, I find it sad that the librarians who get the most attention are mostly men (and, admittedly, some women), men who very rarely write about honest, simple, day to day issues in librarianship (Swiss Army Librarian being a rare exception, with his marvelous ref questions of the week). These men spin elaborate fantasies about librarians being information rockstars who dress to impress (either flashily or with an eye to ironic hipsterism), dismiss librarians who still use books to connect with patrons as hopelessly backwards, and come up with gimmick after gimmick to get libraries “noticed” without ever once writing about a concrete, applicable thing that they have actually done. Show me how libraries and librarians are amazing, don’t just tell me and expect me to be convinced.

I’m on very precarious ground as I write this, because honestly, my main motivation is that I am sad that I am not more recognized. [I really regret this sentence right now! While I, personally, do want to be recognized, more than that I want my tribe–kid and teen librarians who work so damn hard with little to no recognition in the wider library world–to be noticed and appreciated. Which they might be. I’ll admit to not being able to read everything ever printed about libraries. JJ 01/16] I want to be noticed. I want people to listen to what I have to say. I want to be offered speaking engagements, to have a larger platform to  discuss my ideas of how to better librarianship, to be valued. I want to win awards. I crave approval and recognition, and yet, to paraphrase Lillian Hellman, I cannot and will not cut my librarianship to fit this year’s fashion. I don’t particularly care about e-books, only that I wish we could give our patrons what they want. I don’t particularly want to shove ipads into the faces of babies and toddlers because I still believe screen time is ultimately damaging. I don’t really care to have the perception of librarians go from shushing bun heads to strutting pimps. (I think Frank Zappa* is a better rock star librarian model than any rapper, but that’s just me. Like Frank, I believe in free speech, showmanship, and being a decent human being. Like Frank, I think you can push the envelope of expression without being hateful to women.) I like books, and I believe librarianship is about books, if you stop and think about how books equal stories, and it doesn’t matter what goddamn container they come in, be it paper, digital, audio, or a film or a video game. Stories are what people crave, and stories (like the storycorp partnership with libraries, or the not so new resurgence of reading aloud to adults–and adult librarians, if you need help on reading aloud, you know who to ask) are what libraries have and always will do best.

So next time you need a keynote speaker, perhaps consider one of us librarians who spend most of our time on the floor–often literally. Our subject matter might not be “sexy”, but we know how to tell a damn good story.

*”If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library.” – Frank Zappa

Stifled: or, the exact wrong way to think about storytime

Oh, dear sweet baby Picard Jebus, there’s a rage making thread on pub-yac about a children’s department being forced to do all of their storytimes the same. Here’s a quote:

[…A]ll the storytimes for one age group should be the same because:
Patrons get disappointed when they can’t get into a certain storytime because its registration gets filled.
Using personal props, puppets or flannels is shunned because you may leave the library one day and the library patrons will be familiar with those items that were personally yours.
If you are out sick, another librarian will need to cover the storytime and the patrons will be disappointed if “Miss Tina” isn’t there and the librarian covering the storytime will feel bad, because the group is disappointed.
That the staff of librarians have different levels of performance ability and because of  that they should all work together to be about the same or at least contain the same materials.

My first flippant thought was, “Welcome to Camazotz storytime. All storytimes are equal. Now for 1.5 minutes of literacy time.” My second, equally flippant thought was, “Sounds like Amendments 211, 212, and 213 got passed at this library. Soon we’ll be seeing library job postings for a staff Handicapper General.”

When I was still working as a preschool teacher, there was a big movement away from genuine praise–instead, we were supposed to say things like “You did it!” No qualifiers, the only thing we talked about was done and not done. Which also ties in with our current climate of “Everyone’s a winner!” “A+ for trying!” And I can understand the impulse. You don’t want kids or people to feel bad. But by making everyone equal, we’ve done the exact opposite– when we don’t allow children, or staff members, to find out what they excel at, then we have a society full of people who aren’t really good at anything. Not allowing people to fail has caused so many people to never find out what they are truly good at, and by making everyone equal, we’ve inflicted a great injustice on many.

Equality isn’t about what we are–it is about how we are treated, and how we are utilized in society. Those who have talent and work hard at developing and applying it should be lauded, of course, but not at the detriment of others.

Forcing more talented staff to perform at the level of your least talented staff is demoralizing for all involved. Why would anyone do this? I think a smarter approach would be for your staff to try out presenting different programs to different groups and seeing what works. Not every group wants or needs a high energy, jazz hands style presenter. I actually think baby time/lapsit benefits from a calmer, more methodical approach, perfect for shyer or perhaps older librarians.

If you end up with a staff member who is incapable of successfully presenting to any group, in any style, well, then, that’s another discussion. But stifling the creativity and joy of your other staff to meet imagined needs of a public is simply poor management. If I were working with whomever created those guidelines above, I’d be on the lookout for a better situation.

This situation also reminded me of Mel’s recent, excellent series on the elements of storytime, which is as elegant and perfect and precise as Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. I highly recommend anyone who currently performs storytimes or wants to in the future read the entire series. And library school educators, you might just want to incorporate it into your curriculum–with proper credit, of course.

Boundtracks: Pete the Cat and “New Shoes”

Oh, Pete the Cat! I can practically recite you from memory, and there isn’t a group of kids and adults in existence who aren’t magically swept up in your bouncy tale of sloppy shoes. (Although some more savvy color mixers insist that first your shoes should turn pink then purple but I call it a quick charming lesson in suspension of disbelief.)

As I await the arrival of Four Groovy Buttons (having not been terribly impressed with Rockin In My School Shoes, ymmv), I’ve been revisiting the original Pete the Cat, and during my commute this morning I thought that Paolo’s song “New Shoes” would be a great pairing (ha! pairing! shoes! ahem) during a storytime. You could have the kids just get up and dance, or if they need a bit more encouragement, pass out shakers or dancing scarves to help them find the groove.

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Listen, I’m Telling You Stories

Funerals are not for the dead, they are for the living. They are for those left behind, to act as a comforting play in which we know all the roles and there is no twist in the second act.

My mother would have hated her own funeral. It was a maudlin, religious, church bound affair, with a sermon by the very affable ginger haired priest, and some hymn played by the equally affable church organist. If I hadn’t been wracked with grief–if her death hadn’t been such a surprise and a shock–I would have known to have cut the hymn and played a recording of Mama Cass singing “Dream A Little Dream” or perhaps the Beatles singing “I Don’t Want to Spoil The Party.” The church location was fine, I suppose; it was the same church where her own mother had been the organist until her death, but the rest of it…ugh. My mother was many things, but she was not overtly sentimental or sappy. Where other mothers might have sent a card featuring a plucky kitten grasping a tree branch, with the sentiment of “Hang in there!”, my mother tended to send cards with lines like “Don’t forget that you’re the shit!”

So her funeral, with its heartfelt speeches and quiet sobs, would probably have galled her. “Jesus Christ on a crutch!” she’d say. “Don’t you have anything better to do? This town has bars, you know.”

My mother had grand aspirations as a girl. When I was young, I found some of her poetry, and several lines of it have stuck with me since I first read them:

Laying in the Weeds

Sing a song of love
Sing a song of hate
Sing a song of dreams
That always have to wait.

Simple, and not very good, you might think; but what might my mother have become if she hadn’t dropped out of college to move back home and work at the town factory? What if she hadn’t met my miserable, mentally ill father, who managed to charm her into marriage, and after that made it his mission in life to make her miserable?

Once, during a phone call, one of the few times I ever heard my mother cry, she said her terrible marriage had been worth it, because she’d gotten her four children out of it. To give me and my siblings life, she’d abandoned her own–her dreams of being a poet, a singer, a college graduate, the life of being a girl who met her girlfriends in the cemetery for picnics of pizza and beer–she replaced these with four children who tried her patience but whom she loved fiercely, and owed their existence to a man who was as cruel as Bluebeard but not half as sane.

I learned recently that even after birth, for decades after, fetal cells can remain inside the mother, and sometimes will act as positive agents, fighting diseases or repairing tissue. I wondered tonight, as the rainstorm lashed outside and I could not sleep, whether or not my baby cells fought to save my mother’s heart when it was slowing, breaking, and ultimately stopped early one morning in 2007. I hope they did. I hope they tried, because I would have, if I had been there.

I was not ready for my mother to go. Are we ever ready to lose the life of one we love, who sacrificed everything for us? Do we ever recover from the pain of losing them, or the joy of knowing that someone, once upon a time, loved us so much, and so deeply?

My memories of my mother are inextricably intertwined with certain stories. I discovered Stephen King by raiding my mother’s bookshelves, and to this day I still rue the loss of her limited edition copy of The Eyes of the Dragon, signed by the author and chewed by dog and lost in a house fire when I was fourteen. Whenever I watch Labyrinth I spend a moment of two thinking of the morning I woke up at five a.m. and wandered downstairs to find my mother and my little brother watching it because neither of them had been able to sleep. Sometimes I will listen to George Carlin’s Classic Gold album– which I really don’t have to any more, since I have it practically memorized– and remember the time my mother was listening to it in the car on our way to the Indian Head Supper Club to have lunch with my Aunt Pat, my mother’s bitchy, long haired chain smoking sister.

These stories–these connections—are what is vitally important to our lives. I don’t want us to forget that. We tell stories, and we keep stories, and we create stories so we can become ourselves, and remember the people who helped us along the way.

That’s what matters.