The Message of Your All White Booklist

“Well, they’re my favorites, I can’t help if I like what I like.”

Back in July, Grace Lin shared a picture from her local public library on Twitter. When I saw it, my heart sank. I felt a shock of embarrassed sadness. And then I just felt fucking mad.

First, imagine Grace Lin is your library patron! Grace Lin! She has a Newbery Honor Medal! She is a National Book Award finalist! She’s literally one of the most passionate and smartest people in children’s literature. And she’s your library patron!  And when she comes into your library and sees one of those classic library displays of BOOKS YOUR LIBRARIAN (the curator, the decider, the person you trust) LOVES she sees … White people. As far as the eye can see: White people. This has nothing to do, by the way, about an author thinking “they should be featuring MY books!” Because now imagine that this patron is not Grace Lin, a famous children’s book author and adult, but a child. Maybe a White child, maybe a child of color. They see that same group of books dominated by White stories and White authors and White experiences (the sole exception being Simm Taback’s beautiful retelling of the Yiddish folk song about clever Joseph, who lives in a vibrant Jewish community) and they are told, explicitly: these are the stories your librarian (the curator, the decider, the person you trust) loves. These are the stories they see. These are the stories they value.

This message couldn’t be any clearer, it couldn’t be any louder, and it couldn’t be any more damaging.

Michelle Martin wrote this great piece in Kirkus – Be An Accomplice. In it, Dr. Martin asks a question I think should be posed to all librarians: “If you stay current, you know about the We Need Diverse Books movement. But has it changed what you do from day to day?”  

My fellow White librarians, I am asking you to think about your messages. I am asking you to imagine a child of color standing in front of a display filled with historical fiction that completely erases people of color. I am asking you to imagine the messages a White child gets standing in front of this display: “My story is THE story, see?”

I see this happen time and time again and I bet each of you do too.  I know it still happens in schools and public libraries all over the country. I bet you have all had a heart sinking moment of looking at a curated list compiled by a professional colleague (with the best of intentions, of course) and seeing how few books by Native creators and creators of color are on it.

For me, this sinking feeling came every year when they released the New Mexico Battle of the Books list. This is a state wide competition that encourages kids to read from a list of 20 titles, memorize details, and then compete in a quiz bowl like competition. It’s assembled by a small group of (almost entirely) school librarians and, without fail, it is a exceedingly White list. I have tried a variety of things to change this including made plenty of other nominations and specifically requested more diversity. But the White list – featuring the same small handful of Native creators and creators of color – returns every year.

On their 2016-2017 list out of 40 books, only one was by an African-American author yet two were by a white woman writing about African-American characters. The elementary list had only one book by an author of color and one book by a Native writer and the middle school list had three books by people of color – including the only book on either list by a Latinx author. Considering the population of New Mexico is 48% Latinx as of 2015 this felt like an especially glaring oversight. Similarly, we have 10% Native population and 22 federally registered tribe, yet there was only one book by a Native author on either list. All together out of 40 books, the lists featured only 5 books by Native authors and authors of color.

This is simply unacceptable in the year 2017. Honestly. I can’t think of any other way to say it. You, as a librarian, are charged with being a gatekeeper. When you make lists like this one, when you make displays like the one in Lin’s library, you are not opening the gates to everyone. You are status quo’ing and, to be frank, you’re being lazy.

“But they’re my favorites! I can’t help that they’re my favorites! I should be able to read what I want!” 

Imagine a patron comes up to you and tells you that they just finished the last Harry Hole book by Jo Nesbø and they really want some more dark Scandinavian mysteries.

“Oh sorry,” you say to them. “I really only like cozy mysteries. Ones with cats or in tea shops. I just can’t get into that dark stuff. But I just finished a great series about a quilter, let me show you.”

Can you imagine that? No, probably not. Because even if that was true, you’d understand that your reading tastes weren’t supposed to dictate their request. This moment is not about if you like Scandinavian noir. It’s about more than just YOUR taste in books.

And this exact thing is what I’m asking when I ask you to consider the lists, the displays, the booktalks you present to patrons. It’s about more than just YOUR taste in books.

Moreover: “I don’t really read books ‘like that’ so I don’t have any favorites to include or booktalk or display!” is a fundamentally racist thing to say. What do you even mean “like that”? Do you think Native creators and creators of color only write or create ONE kind of book? And what kind of book, exactly, would you imagine that is?

You really only love mysteries? Great! Do you know Attica Locke? Lamar Giles? Marcie Rendon? The Clubhouse Mysteries? You really only love romances? Super! Do you know Alisha Rai? When Dimple Met RishiWhen the Moon Was Ours? Farrah Rochon? You really only love historical fiction? Amazing! Do you know Stacey Lee? Homegoing? Margarita Engle? Tim Tingle? Shall I go on and on and on?

When you say “I don’t really read books ‘like that’ I stay in my favorite genre!” you should think carefully about what assumptions you’re making about work by Native creators and creators of color. It reveals that you think of “diverse books” as something remote, separate from “regular” books. And when you, as a librarian, as a gatekeeper, make these assumptions in your booklists, your displays, your selections – you’re passing them on to your patrons. You’re distancing and other’ing your Native patrons and patrons of color and you are sending the same message to your White patron.

I am not telling you what your “favorites” should be. I am not telling you YOU BETTER READ ____ OR ELSE! I am telling you that you owe it to your patrons to think bigger than just what you have always known, what you are most comfortable with, what you have always done.  Isn’t learning more and serving everyone a major part of what drew you to public librarianship as a career?  It certainly was for me. And I don’t take that lightly. I want to do the most for ALL my patrons and open their worlds up as much as I can. So for me, that means I’m going to make sure that my patrons are exposed to the widest range of authors and books – I am going to look BIGGER than the same White stories by the same White authors over and over. (the immediate family of an 11-13 year old White girl with a quirky name die in an accident, or maybe from cancer, and so she goes to live with her eccentric family, aunts or grandpas are best, and learns that this is her new home as she meets a loving cast of oddballs. They’re all mostly White, with a few people with “light brown” skin. I’ve read this book 10000 times. I’m so over this book.)

So, you’ve been there. You’ve looked at a booklist or a display that a colleague made – maybe that you made – and realized that you were leaving some voices and stories out, that it didn’t have the full range of experience and life that you wanted for your library and your patrons. You got that all White message.  What next?

Change it.  Change what you can, where you can.

My library stopped participating in the New Mexico Battle of the Books when my complaints (and suggestions) were met with a constant refusal to consider more and deeper diversity or to even address my concerns. Instead, I decided to create my own local program and get my school librarians on board.  It’s not perfect, heck it’s still an experiment in progress, but it’s a list that more accurately reflects the kids in our state, a list that isn’t the same tiny handful of Native creators/creators of color, a list that shows some of the best and most interesting writing in kidlit. I’m going to learn lessons as this goes. I am not going to have the same program I used to have. Some kids won’t be interested. But maybe some new ones will be. I am going to be OK with this new thing and know that at least it’s a step forward.

And I mean, come on. This is a pretty great list, right? 

Here’s a list I compiled for people signing up for our new 1000 Books Before Kindergarten program. I wanted to make them a list of books they might not have read 1000 times already (haha) or received ten copies of at their baby showers. I wanted to make a list for adults to share with kids that would allow them, together, to discover and explore the world through books. I chose high interest toddler topics (animals, trucks, counting, nature) and books about reading, writing, singing, playing, and talking. Some of these books could be considered my “favorites” but, really, they’re books I think a wide range of patrons can enjoy. Maybe even the books I don’t like as much, the books that aren’t my favorites can be someone else’s favorites.

Whenever I have a chance to share books with my patrons, with my fellow educators and librarians, I look with a critical eye at those lists, those displays, and those chances to be a gatekeeper, a trusted voice.  I think about who I am sharing mirrors and doors with and I think about all the chances I have to change a life, to help a patron feel seen, to open a new door, to help someone discover a new favorite. I am going to think about more than just me. Because that, too, is why I became a librarian.

My fellow White librarians: I challenge you to challenge yourselves. Take a hard look at your daily library service and think about what messages you’re sending – and which you are sending by virtue of omission.

We can change the message. Let’s do it.

Additional Reading

Performative Allyship and Storytime by Alec Chunn
Selecting While White: Breaking Out of the Vendor Box by Chelsea Couillard-Smith
Multicultural Children’s Literature: Where Are We? by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop

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Babies Need Words Every Day!

babies need words header

Babies Need Words!

It is critical that as librarians, we all work on bridging the 3o million word gap. I know.  When you hear 30 million words it seems almost insurmountable and certainly it seems out of your hand as a librarian.  But the fact is, we can start bridging that gap in our every day programs and interactions with kids. Throughout our libraries and communities we can model behavior for parents and caregivers on how they too can bridge that gap in simple and FUN ways.

BUT HOW DO YOU START! ALSC has your back!  ALSC has created Babies Need Words Every Day – a simple, engaging campaign that gives you and your library beautiful and FREE resources to start bridging this gap. Even better, ALSC has tied all of it into the five early literacy skills of: TALK, SING, READ, WRITE, PLAY.  Many of you probably already incorporate those practices into your storytimes, language to caregivers, and decoration in your library.  With Babies Need Words Every Day you can use that language to show caregivers that bridging the word gap really is simple.

ALSC is hosting an amazing blog tour through some of the best library blogs IN EXISTENCE to introduce this campaign in a hands-on, real life way. If you want tons of decorating ideas and program ideas, make sure you check out all the stops. The tour is also a chance to spotlight some of the 8 FREE POSTERS that are part of the initiative.

Today, I am sharing this awesome poster for PLAY!

every day play-page-001

As many of you know, one of my library’s most popular programs is our Music & Movement.  We have four sessions a week at our main library and branch – each program has attendance between 30-70 people (sometimes more.)  Why?  Because it’s so much fun to use MUSIC to PLAY!  One of the things I love about this poster is that it really spotlights how singing and dancing are PLAY.  Too often, caregivers forget that things like singing songs to babies to soothe them or to help them with eating/sleeping are forms of PLAY and ways to develop literacy skills. ALSO THEY ARE FUN.  One of the parts I love the most about these posters is that it really shows how fun and easy bridging the gap can be.

We encourage caregivers to sing to their babies in a few important ways:

  • We model singing loudly and with joy. Look, the thing is – I am probably tone deaf.  I cannot carry a tune and I have a horrible voice.  But one of the most important things I do is sing loudly and with joy.  I model for caregivers that you don’t have to be Carrie Underwood – you just have to show your child that you love to sing and it’s a joy.  Get over your self-conscious.  Kids love to hear songs – they don’t care about pitch!
  • Related: don’t be embarrassed if you forget the words while you’re singing or doing rhymes.  Sometimes when I mess up (a familiar tune with new words, for instance) I will take a minute to stop and laugh and to tell the caregivers that it’s OK to get mixed up and start over.  I also tell them sometimes that happens when we sing familiar tunes (like Frère Jacques) with different sets of words but that’s OK, it helps our kids see that many words can match tunes, which helps them start to understand syllables and rhymes – important early literacy building blocks!
  • We encourage caregivers to sing in their native language/familiar folk songs from their own cultures.  We have a lot of caregivers who are English Language Learners, but we want to let them know that they can build their children’s literacy through singing and play in any language.  We share folksongs in other languages (like Ong Tal Sam, a Korean song about Spring) and encourage caregivers to sing.

This makes singing play and that’s a great step in helping babies build their word banks!

I can’t WAIT to hang these posters up all around my library both in our play and program areas and in our bathrooms. Did I mention THERE’S EIGHT OF THEM AND THEY ARE BEAUTIFUL AND FREEEEEE! (and in English and Spanish!)

Since we live in a smaller town. I also plan to take them around my community and hand them out to pediatrician’s offices and local day cares.  EVERYONE loves free posters and this is a great way to encourage caregivers to engage in the early literacy practices in a fun way while bridging that gap – and it makes them think of the library too.

ALSC has also created a booklist, a talking points guide, a press release, a letter to possible community partners and more.  AND IT’S ALL FREE.  Check it out on their Babies Need Words site (which also has all the posters in different sizes.)

Make sure you check out all the stops on the Babies Need Words blog tour – I promise you will come away with tons of new ideas. (and you’ll find some new bloggers to inspire you – so honored to be in this awesome company!)  Thank you so much to the ALSC  Early Childhood Programs and Services committee for organizing this tour, especially their splendid chair, Brooke Newberry.

AND an extra thank you to ALSC for launching this initiative – I’m so proud to be an ALSC member because they not only care about kids but create fun, useful, beautiful projects like this. You can find out more about ALSC (and how to join) at their website.

What do YOU think about Babies Need Words?  How do you think you might use these awesome resources at your library or in your community? What fun ways have you found to encourage your patrons and caregivers to TALK, SING, READ, WRITE, AND PLAY at your library as they bridge the word gap? Leave me a comment or chat with me about it on Twitter.

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Two Quick Passive Programs for Spring

We just wrapped up our Spring Break.  Last year, as you might remember, we experimented with doing a week worth of mostly school-age programming.  We had mixed results, but I’m glad we tried it.  You can read all about what we did during that week here. But I was going to be out of town this Spring Break (along with another staff member) so we didn’t really have the staff to do this kind of programming again.  AND YET!  I still loved offering something for our families or drop-ins who were in town and looking for something to do and somewhere to be. I want them to think of us year round, after all, and that’s what programs are there for.

So, inspired by some ideas I’d seen floating around Twitter, I whipped up two quick passive programs for families and kids to do over the course of the week in their own time.  All together these took a few hours to create and less than an hour or so to set-up.  The results were more than worth it.  We had dozens and dozens of families and kids on their own participating over the course of the week for very little staff time. Here’s how they worked.

1. The Great Character Hunt! (geared at families and kids aged 2-6, but open to all)

I printed out nine characters from famous picture books (and here were some complications – I wanted to make sure there were female characters represented and characters of color too … easier said than done, eh?) and then had a fellow staff member hide them around Youth Services.  Participants got sheets at the front desk and then walked around looking for the characters (maybe even learning about picture books and becoming more familiar with Youth Services as they walked around…)  and recording their locations.  When they brought the sheets back they got small prizes: a scratch n sniff bookmark, a plastic pirate treasure coin, and a color your own sticker.  (Nothing big and all stuff we already had lying around.) They also got to sign their name to the I COMPLETED THE GREAT CHARACTER HUNT! poster, which let us track their work and gave us a great in-house visual. Let’s take a look at some pictures!

madeline

Madeline hid out by the doorway of our dollhouse! (notice in the next pic how she looks almost like a doll for the house…)

madeline full

waldo

Where’s Waldo in our dino mural?

pigeon

Pigeon was located on puzzle stand – a good place for families who play with puzzles to see him and ask what he was doing there, inviting them into the hunt!

max

Max blended in with the background when he went on the window.

complete sheet

Here are the signed complete sheets: you’ll notice the book covers from where our characters are from.  And can you spy Peter hiding by the last place someone might look?

2. The Epic Quest (for the older kids, suggested for ages 7-12)

This was a basic scavenger hunt that required kids to use the catalog and explore our resources.  They had to physically go to some locations (“The library subscribes to many magazines!  Find one and write the name down.” Maybe you didn’t know there WERE youth magazines!) and just use the catalog for other questions (“What is the name of the author of the book Better Nate Than Ever?”) which involved not only using the catalog but then figuring out how to decode the information from the catalog.

This worked well with the character hunt because it also had the look and find elements but felt “older” because there was catalog work involved.  When they completed, they received the same simple prizes and got to sign their own sheet. (as you can see above.)

Want to do this at your library?  I can’t recommend it enough!  And to get you started here are examples of the sheets we used.  They’re linked through Google Docs, feel free to modify and save them for your own work. (if you want Word copies, email me and I’ll be happy to send them along.)

Great Character Hunt Key

(helpful note: the exact same images on this sheet were  what I used for the hidden images.  No need to send them looking for another version.  Unless you wanted to make it a little more challenging!  Participants received a sheet with the names of each character with a line next to it for them to write down location. These were the character key sheets they took on the hunt with them for recognition and were encouraged to return – but we definitely could have modified them into TAKE US HOME TO READ ALL OUR BOOKS! bookmarks/flyers.  Next time!) 

Epic Quest Questions

The second passive display also ties into National Poetry Month!  I think I saw someone mention or allude to something along these lines in the #titletalk chat (you should definitely participate in TitleTalk, it’s one of my most favorite Twitter chats) about poetry and I ran with it the very next day.  I wasn’t sure how it was going to work, but I wanted to give it a try.  What is it?

A POETREE!

Yup, we basically cut out some tree shapes out of brown butcher paper, cut out some leaves out of green cardstock, wrote some poems on them, and then left the shapes out for people to compose their own poem/leaves and hang them up.  The very day the trees went up I immediately talked two teenagers into sitting down and writing the first poems for us.  The concept is so simple to grasp, it looks so cool with a set of poem/leaves already up, the leaves are RIGHT THERE – well, it’s hard to resist!

They’ve been up for a few weeks and we’ve seen lots of fun stuff as our trees have gained leaves!  Silly haikus and rhymes from teenagers.  Meditative poems about nature and leaves from middle schoolers and high schoolers. And, one of my favorites, parents sitting down and talking about poetry, forms of poetry, rhythm, rhyme, and figurative language with their very young children and writing poems together.  (well, maybe the parents do most of the writing and the kids say a few words or phrases, but they do it together and it’s pretty darn amazing.)  The POETREES themselves frame one of our larger display shelves, so it’s also a great way to spotlight poetry titles and get them circulating.  Pictures, I say!

poetree 1

One tree from the distance (this one is mostly full of poems we wrote out, but has some from patrons too.)

poetree 2This tree is mostly patron poems, but has a few others scattered in AND our Explanation Apple!

up close poetree 1Here’s an up-close of some leaves – note the one with little kid scrawl is one that the parent and child wrote together!

up close poetree 2

More up close of patron poems of all ages!

leaves basket Our leaves basket for patrons.

poetrees full

The poetrees in full bloom!  Note the shelf full of poetry books between them.

There you have it!  Two quick programs with not a ton of staff time involved (though the hunt and promoting it did not run itself!) but with HUGE returns. Both of these programs/displays gave patrons a chance to participate in their own time, create together, add something fun to the library’s landscape, and learn about the library and our resources.  (as well as build early literacy and information literacy skills, don’t forget that part!)  Overall: big successes we learned from and definitely want to repeat, in different ways, throughout the year!

Have you done this or any kind of passive programming at your library?  What worked?  What didn’t?  How do your patrons like passive programming and how do you tie it into larger events like Spring Break or National Poetry Month? Are there any questions or details about these displays/programs I didn’t answer or that you want more info/samples about? Let’s talk about it all! (Comment here, send me an email, or talk with me on Twitter!)

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Native American Heritage Month

Debbie Reese is my blogging heroine, my blogging role model.  If there’s one blog I wish my blog could be like, it’s Reese’s American Indians in Children’s Literature.  She was the model for what I wanted this blog to be like.  She says things people don’t always want to hear, whether it’s about Little House on the Prairie or Neil Gaiman.  She asks readers, librarians, and teachers to think critically about the messages in books and how these messages shape children and young adults and our cultural perceptions and conversations.  She does this in an uncompromising and personal manner that is also intellectual and incisive.  She sticks to her principles, challenges the status quo, and expects people to engage in informed debate.

Like I said: heroine.

Back in July, Debbie posted some recommendation lists for Elementary, Middle, and High school libraries.  I was not only happy to get these lists to help with my collection development, but knew I wanted to eventually use them in a display.

November turned out to be the perfect month.  Not only was it chance to put out another message about THE LESSONS OF THANKSGIVING (which, really, you’d think the “lessons of Thanksgiving” would be more centered around genocide and less centered around, say, turkey) to my patrons, but it was also Native American Heritage Month.  It was a perfect opportunity.

I used the main, lighted display case on our floor.  It’s hard to miss when you’re on our floor at all, you essentially pass it one way or another.  Using Debbie’s elementary list (and some other titles and authors in our collection, including a book that won an American Indian Youth Literature Award, given out by the American Indian Library Association, an ALA division) I decided to make a display featuring primarily picture books, since we all know those are ultra-pleasing for display.

I wanted to not only feature the books but make note of the fact it was Native American Heritage Month and that all the featured authors were Native writers, which is SO IMPORTANT.  There’s not a lot of other decoration in the case, partially because I wanted to avoid both generic and stereotypical “Indian” images and I was being wary of cultural appropriation.  Also, I wanted to fit as many books as possible, which took up display space. (which was THE POINT.)

Above each book, I made a small text box that mentioned what tribe each author/illustrator belonged to.  Onto pictures!  Click to make them bigger, of course.

Here’s the whole case:

And here’s the sign I created for the inside of the case:

Text: November is Native American Heritage Month!  Nationally November is set aside to celebrate and honor the contributions and accomplishments of the first Americans.  YOU can celebrate by sharing stories written and illustrated by Native people from tribes all over North America, by learning about their tribes, and by finding out more about the lives of Native children living in America today.  What will YOU learn?

And here are some close ups:

On this shelf: Shi-shi-etko by Nicola Campbell, When Turtle Grew Feathers by Tim Tingle, and Thanks to the Animals by Allen Sockabasin

On this shelf: Navajo by Shonto Begay, Raccoon’s Last Race by Joseph and James Bruchac, and For a Girl Becoming by Joy Harjo

On this shelf: Sky Sisters by Jan Bourdeau Waboose and  Brave Wolf and the Thunderbird by Joe Medicine Crow

On the bottom of the case are the four titles from My World: Young Native Americans Today. (a series which every library should own!)  The titles are: Meet Mindy: A Native Girl from the Southwest, Meet Lydia: A Native Girl from Southeast Alaska, Meet Naiche: A Native Boy from the Chesapeake Bay Area, and (the award winner!) Meet Christopher: An Osage Indian Boy from Oklahoma.  In between them is one of my favorite titles: Do All Indians Live in Tipis? Questions & Answers from the National Museum of the American IndianAll of these titles are published by the NMAI.

I was really quite pleased with the display.

Little did I suspect that November would also be a time that teachers were readying units on Native Americans.  Literally less than two hours after I put the display in, a teacher came to the desk and asked for three of the titles out of the case!  She wanted Raccoon’s Last Race, When Turtle Grew Feathers, and Brave Wolf and the Thunderbird.  Her checking these books out gave me a chance to put MORE books in.  I replaced those titles with Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitch Smith, (which had just been returned from another patron that day!) Crazy Horse’s Vision by Joseph Bruchac, and How Raven Stole Sun by Maria Williams.

Just last week, another teacher came and complimented the display and then checked out Thanks to the Animals by Allen Sockabasin.  I had a chance to talk to her about that and let her know that at Tilbury House website, you can listen to/download Sockabasin read the story in Passamaquoddy.  She was especially excited to hear that and told me she was going to use it in her class of first graders.

The idea that a class full of  small children in New Mexico will not just hear a traditional Passamaquoddy story passed down to Allen Sockabasin from his mother, but actually hear the Passamaquoddy language – I mean, aren’t stories like that the reason you wanted to be a librarian?  They sure are for me.

So, thanks to Debbie for always leading by example and inspiring me to try something at my library that not only promoted and highlighted the diversity of my collection but also (hopefully) gave my patrons something new to think about, which is my favorite thing of all.

That’s something to be truly thankful for.

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