Us, Too.

On being complicit.ustoo

As a Youth Services Librarian, I sometimes have opportunities to mingle with those in the publishing community, including the authors and illustrators of books. I’ll meet them at signings or events at conferences, or from booking an author visit to my library and community, or from an excited phone call to tell them that they’ve won an award.

Much like children’s publishing, my profession is “blindingly white and female“. Also just like in publishing, despite being overwhelmingly female, more often than not it’s the men who get more recognition and opportunities. In publishing, the winners of the Caldecott are overwhelmingly male.  In librarianship, library directors and managers are predominantly male. (The whiteness also needs to be addressed, but is not the focus of this essay).

I am not blameless in this. I’ve fawned over ‘attractive’ men in publishing, and giggled over the “hot men of children’s literature.” I’ve bought into the idea that men are to be congratulated for deigning to write books for children and teens, elevating the work by their very presence. I’ve told male colleagues that if they go into Youth librarianship, they’ll get ahead at a much faster rate since they’ll be such a novelty. (However, anecdotally, I’ve noticed that most men become teen librarians, and will rarely work with younger children.)

Still, I do hold a certain amount of power in the library field–after all, if youth librarianship is so white and female, it must be librarians like me who are giving all these Caldecott awards to men, right? To many writers and illustrators, I am seen as someone who can either get their work into the hands of readers and help them build their careers, or I’m someone who doesn’t buy their books for my collection because I don’t have “those” kinds of kids in my community.  To many parents, I am the person who knows good books and I am a trusted authority when it comes to finding material for their children to read, either for pleasure or edification. To teachers, including teacher librarians, I am an integral part of the team, helping make sure youth have access to many types of materials, including those outside the scope of a tightly focused school collection.

The trust relationship I hold most dear, however, is the one between myself and a child or teen who comes to me asking for help to find “the” book–you know the one. The book that can change their life, that can turn a non-reader into a voracious one, the book that can help an abused girl realize she’s not alone (and it’s not her fault), the book that can turn a passive observer into a passionate activist, the book that makes a child feel seen and important, or the book that just takes the reader somewhere else for a while. This is not always an easy task, but it’s often the most rewarding.

Most librarians and teachers make sure to let children know that there are people behind the books and stories we love–someone had to think up those beloved characters and scenes and plots, and work very hard to bring them to life. Sometimes, when we can, we facilitate it so children can meet the creators they love. This can change a child’s life. After meeting an author or illustrator, children are almost always inspired to read more, draw more, write more, and tell more stories.

So what am I, the Youth Services Librarian, supposed to do when the perfect book for a child happens to have been written or illustrated by someone who has repeatedly assaulted women, or made racist comments, or behaved appallingly in other ways? Or, what can I do when these books are already an integral part of so many lives? Is there anything I can–or should–do, when a child idolizes a monster who has created something they love?

Sometimes I think about this in light of having grown up in an abusive family. I was desperate for the love of my parents, who showed their love in dark and painful ways; yet I can’t throw out every hug they ever gave me just because they used those same arms to slam me against a wall when I was mouthy. There’s no separating the two– it would be madness to try. To hold on to the good things they gave me, I must acknowledge the bad things, too.

Is there a way to walk this line when it comes to the literature children desperately love that’s been created by men who have used the power they gained by publishing this literature to bring harm to others? Should we even try to explain? Is that any less cruel than letting a child find out, on their own, years later, that the author of the books they loved most as a child was also someone who committed violent atrocities? I wouldn’t wish loving a monster on anyone, but is that a choice that needs to be made?

Again, to make this huge discussion personal, I think of the stories we’ve lost. My mother was a poet who stopped writing poetry after she dropped out of college (not enough money) and married my father. Who knows what kind of poetry the world would have if she’d kept writing? The cruel thing is, we never will know. We’ll also never know what kind of children’s literature (and, honestly, art in general) we’ve missed because women were passed over by editors and agents in favor of men, or what books never had a chance to find their audience because the publisher put all of the promotion behind the men in their catalog.

What we do know is that there is a huge amount of work that’s been created by women and nonbinary creators, and when we decide we don’t want to contribute to the careers of men who’ve made bad decisions, there is a bountiful body of work that we can turn to instead, and should have been considering all along.

Because perhaps instead of mourning what we (think) we have lost, we should start thinking about everything we have gained (a door opened to honest conversations, where we believe and value women and the stories they tell), and could possibly gain going forward: a culture around literature for children and youth that is safer, more fair, and more welcoming to everyone.

Related reading:

View at Medium.com

https://www.slj.com/2018/02/industry-news/unpacking-anne-ursus-survey-fallout-changes-coming-events-sexual-harassment-childrens-publishing/

http://www.teenlibrariantoolbox.com/2018/02/sexual-harassment-in-kidlit/

http://blog.leeandlow.com/2016/01/26/where-is-the-diversity-in-publishing-the-2015-diversity-baseline-survey-results/

https://www.slj.com/2018/01/industry-news/childrens-publishing-reckons-sexual-harassment-ranks/

https://bookriot.com/2017/10/24/sexual-harassment-library/

 

 

 

View at Medium.com

Outreach in a Time of Uprising

My first job out of college was working as a preschool teaching assistant in a state funded preschool program. Children in this program were “at-risk”, meaning they were growing up in poverty, or with only one parent, or with parents who didn’t speak English. An essential part of our work were home visits, where my lead teacher and I visited every student’s home in order to get to know our students better.

During these visits we asked caregivers two pages worth of questions, including questions about discipline methods, family background, a typical day in the life of the family. We learned the names of beloved grandparents. We sometimes ate the same food that the child every day (who was I to turn down a homemade tamale?). We observed how many books were in the home. We made connections, and developed relationships. If parents had had bad experiences with education in their past, this work was a little more difficult. We’d need to gently untangle years of bad experiences and demonstrate to wary parents that we could be trusted. (And for many families, we were also working through years and years of historical trauma, although we didn’t know that’s what it was at that time.) Just as we soothed the feelings of a distraught child in the classroom, we extended this same care and concern to the child’s family. 

If we determined the family needed, we’d refer them to social workers on staff who would work to make sure utility bills got paid, ensure the family had enough food, or help caregivers finish their own education. By knowing and seeing the whole child–and the whole family, and school, and community–we could tailor their classroom experience to help them succeed socially, emotionally, and academically.

The six years I spent working in the field of early childhood education had a profound impact on my professional values. It was there I developed my passion for helping people, and learned that listening to people’s stories is the first and most powerful step in helping them change their lives. I’ve taken those lessons forward with me into my work in libraries. Those home visits taught me patience, understanding, and compassion, and those qualities have made me a better reference librarian and improved my ability at readers advisory. By having a deeper understanding of the needs and wants of the community I serve, every program, collection, or service I propose or implement will be stronger, better, and more useful. 

I’ve learned how to create safe environments for sharing and learning by being open, vulnerable, and nonjudgmental. While booktalking to middle school students I’ll share personal stories, inspiring the students to share their own.  By being easily recognizable and approachable in my community, I’ve become the face of the library to many people, and this has allowed me to have fruitful conversations with library users in grocery stores and in the clearance section at Target as well as at the reference desk. These interactions inform every aspect of my library work, and contribute to my vision for truly responsive and integrated library spaces, services, and programs.

I’ve always believed that this type of community engagement is crucial to library services, but I believe that now it’s more important than ever. When the humanity of people in our communities is called into question, one of the strongest responses we can make is by helping elevate and amplify their voices and their stories. This is why, even if your community is entirely white (which it’s probably not), books with children of color on the covers, and books written by authors of color, are still crucial to have in your collection, and need to be included in book talks, on book lists, and included during your readers’ advisory sessions.

But to go even further, there are stories in your own community that deserve to be told and voices that need to be listened to. Marginalized voices deserve a seat on your library board. They deserve a voice at the table when you’re planning programs, remodeling your spaces, and creating your collections. And you’re not going to hear these voices sitting behind a desk or holed up in your office, or even on the floor of your library, or commenting on your facebook page. You’re going to hear these voices out in your community, at the park or at church socials or at a school information night. You will have to do the work of being present, being engaged, being available. You’ll need to start by being vulnerable yourself, by admitting you don’t have all the answers and you don’t do everything right, but you’re there to listen, and to support.

Here’s the thing: it’s going to take months, if not years, for you to become trusted. It will take hours of being available in spaces, making sometimes awkward approaches, trying to prove your value. And you do. You need to prove your value, and be authentic. You can’t just throw up a sign or have one “multicultural” event and call it a day. That’s not how it works.

And this isn’t news. From Managing Library Outreach Programs: a how-to-do-it Manual for Librarians*, by Marcia Trotta, published 1993:

The first step toward success is the most important: commitment to the goal of making library services available to all. We need to face reality and realize that not everyone is comfortable within our traditional library boundaries. The buildings are imposing, the amounts of information are overwhelming, unfamiliar cultural manifestations are threatening. In many instances, people don’t know that the library has something for them. Outreach services, also known as ‘the off-site approach’, offer librarians the opportunity to open up communication about the library and its services on the user’s own turf. It gives librarians the chance to observe and listen to the population intended to be served, so that the barriers can be overcome. Bringing the library outside its walls requires a change of perception about the library and its roles, both on the part of the librarians and of the users (Trotta, 4; bold emphasis added).

Also from this book: Chicago Public Library added a social worker to its staff in 1969. I don’t think they employ one any longer, but they’re currently working to integrate library branches with affordable housing options. And while they lost their social worker, other public libraries have added this position in recent years, which is a step in the right direction. How much more embedded can you be, then to have your library where people live?

But even if you can’t integrate your library spaces in your community to such a degree, you can get out in your community. Go to events, be recognizable and available (which can be scary for some, so do what feels comfortable for you), and above all–listen. Listen without judgment, assumptions, or an agenda. Listen, and observe, and be present. This is the only way to learn about your community, and in turn, help them achieve what they want to achieve.

And above all, remember what Mr Vonnegut said: bekind

 

*If you have never read this book, please do. It has been updated, but I appreciated reading the older edition as well, to see how perceptions and approaches have changed, or in some instances, stayed the same. 

 

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?

 

 

 

 

Making Common Core Commonplace: On the Front Lines 2013

coreHi OTFL friends! Thank you so much for attending my presentation, and for the great conversation. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me if you want to talk more– I’d love to help.

Just a note–this post will be living organism over the next few weeks, so don’t fret– more information will be added.

Here are a few links to my work:

Resources from other sites