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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Librarians & #WeNeedDiverseBooks

Have you supported #WeNeedDiverseBooks yet? What started off as a virtual movement has now become a full-fledged force.  Their fundraising drive met their goal in less than a month. (but you should still donate if you can!) The best part of the fundraising is that it backs up concrete, measurable results which will ensure that diverse books get out to a more children and teens.  Among the many cool goals, I have to admit my favorite is the one about funding not just an award but a grant for new writers – both named after the legendary (and beloved by me) Walter Dean Myers.  THESE are the kind of actions that need to be taken if we want to open up and PUSH the conversation/sales/and attention of diverse titles AND authors!

In several Twitter chats and interactions, I’ve noticed that people who don’t work in libraries are curious about how to – or even if they should – approach their (mostly public) librarians about stocking more diverse titles. I thought it might be helpful to have some tips on the best way to do this if you, a library user, want to interact with your librarian about the diversity in your library.  Now, of course, I can’t speak to every situation and you should use, well … approach your librarian as if that person has good intentions.  Because, 99.9% of the time, trust me when I tell you we do.  Librarians want to support diverse books.  We see.  We know.  More than you can imagine, we see the impact books have on children, we understand what it means when they find themselves in text.  We do.  And we want more diverse books and more diverse collections – but we’re limited by time and budget and staffing and a thousand little things that pull apart our days and responsibilities. That’s the reality of working in a public library in these times when everything from budgets to “so, hey eBooks are putting you out of business, huh?” presses in on us every single day.  But we care.  We do. Before you have any conversation with your librarian about diversity: try very hard (outside any previous experience that has given you cause to doubt) to presume good intentions. What else can you do?

Get to know your librarian!

We live for your questions.  We want nothing more than to talk to you about books.  We want to hear what you’re reading.  We want to recommend favorites.  And, most of all, we want to hear about what YOU want to see/read at the library.  Go ahead and ask the person behind the desk in the children/teen department what THEY are reading.  And, yes, ask them about diverse books

  • Be specific: “I’m interested in some picture books with African-American characters.”
  • Use examples of titles/authors you like: “I love the Lulu books by Hilary McKay. Can you recommend some others like that?”
  • Talk about what you want IN ADDITION to diversity: “My daughter loves books with action and adventure.  Can you recommend some diverse titles that would fit in with that?”
Once you have started this conversation, it will be easier to approach your librarian about requests or gaps you see in the collection. And, side bonus, you’ll get good recommendations.  Now, your librarian might not be some kind of machine that can spit out recommendations at the drop of a hat but here’s what questions like this do: indicate to your librarian that there is patron interest in these kind of books and let your librarian know that these are the kind of books they should be familiar with/able to booktalk and recommend. Say you’ll come back while they have time to compile a list, give your librarian a chance to do some research.

Submit your requests!

Almost all libraries accept patron requests.  This doesn’t mean they will buy everything yoyu request.  Budgets just don’t make that possible and neither do each library’s individual collection development policies, which vary from library to library but SHOULD be available to any patron that asks to see them.  But the point is … you are not inventing the wheel by asking if you can submit purchase requests.  DO NOT feel nervous, pushy, hesitant, or ashamed about submitting purchase requests. We get asked this often for more stuff than you could possibly imagine. Your library probably has a purchase request form on their website.  Here’s a few random examples:

If you feel hesitant about talking to a librarian about this, you can get to most online forms with a little bit of Googling or digging around at their website.  You can also ask in person for a paper purchase request – yes, those still exist.  (Well, in MOST libraries, I guess.)  As far as I know, libraries don’t “prioritize” one over the other.  BUT don’t just go spamming libraries with purchase requests if you don’t live there/have never even been to their library.  Most libraries require your patron info any way, so we’d notice. (and it doesn’t make us kindly inclined to your suggestions, trust.)

Now, that stuff might seem pretty self-evident.  But here’s the reason you got to know your librarian!  You can approach your librarian about WHY you want to purchase these books.  Sometimes the forms have space for this – fill it it!  But other times they don’t – but, hey!  You got to know your librarian!

How do libraries/librarians decide to buy books?  Well, it differs from library to library. But we all have (or should have) collection development policies.  These guide our purchasing decisions.  But so do other things.  Like budgets.  Like patron interest. (these elements can be built into collection development guidelines.) And, as you have no doubt heard countless times: libraries also use reviews and awards to help guide collection development.  That’s why those things matter, you see.

And that’s why you should use them to your advantage! Mention these lists.  Tell your librarian you’ll check out the award titles.  Award lists with patron interest?  Now that’s something a librarian can make a case for.  Not sure what lists to mention?  Luckily, I have some suggestions. For the most part, these are awards given by the American Library Association and its divisions (because this is, of course, the professional organization for librarians) but there are some others worth noting. Enjoy these handy direct direct links:

Coretta Scott King Award (lots of libraries carry these winners: but what about the Honor books?)
Schneider Family Book Award (for books that best embody the disability experience)
Pura Belpré Award (another good list to check on the Honor titles)
Stonewall Book Awards – Mike Morgan & Larry Romans Children’s & Young Adult Literature Award
Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature
American Indian Youth Literary Award
Amelia Bloomer List (feminist literature for ages 0-18)

Non-ALA Awards
Jane Addams Peace Association Book Award (promoting peace, social justice, equality)
Ezra Jack Keats Book Award (for, among other things, portraying the “multicultural nature of our world”)
Lambda Literary (category for Children’s/Young Adult)
Américas Award (for portraying Latin America, the Caribbean, or Latinos in the United States)
Sydney Taylor Book Award (awarded by the National Jewish Book Award for Children’s Literature)
NAACP Image Award for Literature (categories for Children & Teen)

>If you have a blogger or website that you think gives particularly insightful and comprehensive reviews, you should feel free to talk to your librarian about that source too.  Maybe they’re familiar with them, maybe they’re not and they can add a new review source. For example: Debbie Reese has recommended lists on Native Americans in Children’s Literature and Twinja Reviews had a ton of lists for Black Speculative Fiction Month, including smaller press stuff which can be hard to find reviews of.

What about donations? Self-published stuff?

First, thank you for thinking of your library!  Now give us money.  Haha, just kidding.  Sorta.

The real first thing is: gifts are not free. When you donate something to a library, we have to take staff time and our own materials to process it and catalog it so it can be added to the collection.  Someone also has to decide if it belongs in the library collection, which goes back to using our collection development guidelines. So, that takes time and money and it’s time and money some libraries don’t have, which is why they may not accept donations and why you should ask what your library’s policies and procedures for donations/gifts are first.

Next is the self-publishing issue.  There’s a great conversation about self-published books, how they get reviewed, and what that means for libraries at The Horn Book.  There’s many people saying smart and thoughtful things there, but I will give you a little bit of my librarian’s perspective.  First, we just can’t circulate paperback picture books or easy readers.  They fall apart and they are not worth staff time processing them. If you want us to buy/add a picture book or easy reader?  It’ll have to be hardcover. Second, I have run the numbers.  In my library, I have STATISTICALLY seen that overall, the self-published books that were donated and then added to our collection circulate less than traditionally published books.  That is absolutely going to be a factor in my decision about adding titles. Does this mean we would never add self-published books?  No, of course not.  We have and will again – but it does mean that they are held to a higher standard. I don’t mean for this post to be THE ULTIMATE GUIDE ON HOW TO GET YOUR SELF-PUBLISHED BOOK IN LIBRARIES!!1 I don’t think that exists, for one thing, and every library will have a different set of guidelines and standards about this – because this is a new field and because every community is different. There’s also the issue of where libraries will be able to obtain your self-published title from and if their purchasing guidelines allow for them to buy from those services. And you know what that leaves you with, should you be wishing to urge a librarian to buy your self-published book/donate it?  It leads you right back to step #1: get to know your librarian!

And there you go!  Those are some ways you can really interact with your librarian (and your library shelves) when it comes to finding out about new diverse material AND requesting your library’s shelves grow even more diverse.  Just as we should speak up to the publishing world and let them know that, yes, we will buy and promote and be excited about diverse titles, that we want more to share with children and teens, so should we talk to librarians about this – and I mean this if you’re a library user or if you’re a fellow librarian reading this now.

What are YOU doing, fellow librarians, to make patrons aware of your diverse collection? What are you doing to EXPAND your collection? 

Do you make it easy for patrons to figure out how they can request titles, are you forms easily accessible? Do you do displays with the books face out for cultural heritage months?  Do you include diverse titles on your best books for fifth grade! recommended reading lists or your staff favorites?  Do you put your diverse titles face-out where patrons can find them browsing?  Do you booktalk diverse titles on school visits or when asked for recs?  Do you talk to your child/teen patrons about why this issue is important and impacts them?  Are you making a conscious effort to expand the doors and windows in your collection, to address gaps, to make sure your collection is diverse and TRUE to?

This is now in OUR hands.  Let’s do something about it.

If you have any questions – or even better suggestions – about how diversity in library collections and what you can/should do about it as a library user OR a librarian, I’d love to continue the conversation!  You can leave a comment here or talk to me on Twitter.  Let’s keep this momentum and this movement going – we owe to our patrons.

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Books for Ferguson – UPDATED

11/28/14 We have a FOURTH list of titles for Ferguson! Believe it or not, we got through the third list in less than two days.  This is amazing, world.  These titles have been approved by Scott Bonner.  They fill gaps in Ferguson’s popular reading collection for teens (lots of African-American authors) and expand their collection of titles with Native American, Asian American, and Latin@ American protagonists.  There are also adult titles on this list.  None of these titles are currently held at the Ferguson branch and would be welcome additions to their shelves. Please read through the rest of the original post to find out specific instructions on how/why these titles were selected and how to get them shipped directly to Ferguson.

You may also still donate cash! Librarian Scott Bonner wants to use  these donations to possibly  hire a new librarian, which would be truly amazing.  You can donate via the Paypal link on their homepage.  If you’re having trouble linking to the current list, you can go to Powell’s “find a Wishlist” link and use the email booksforferguson @ gmail to locate the list called “Books for Ferguson IV”  Thank you for caring about libraries!

What has been happening in Ferguson, Missouri for the past few weeks has been absolutely enraging and heartbreaking on so many levels.  I don’t want to say it is shocking or unbelievable or HOW COULD THIS HAPPEN IN AMERICA because while what has been happening in Ferguson might seem “un-American” to me, it’s the America that so many people exist in. And that’s part of the warranted rage and heartbreak. While following the news about Ferguson on Twitter (by far the best place to get news on issues like this) I saw the hashtag #kidlit4justice” start.  The idea was to round up book suggestions about It was created and promoted by three of my favorite people on Twitter: Sarah Hamburg, Kids Like Us, and Ebony Thomas.   (Dr. Thomas also writes the amazing blog The Dark Fantastic, which should be on your must read list.) Lots of people chimed in with great suggestions.  There’s a Storify of their suggestions which is unmissable.

Twitter was also how I found out about the amazing work happening at the Ferguson Library.  In the wake of school being cancelled, the Ferguson Library went about creating a school and community place for the children of Ferguson. Teachers volunteered to come in and teach, classes were held at the library and a satellite location.  You can read all about it on the twitter for Ferguson Library.

Once Scott Bonner, the director of the Ferguson Library, indicated that their library would be open to taking donations, both of cash and of books, I saw many people willing to donate. I was heartened by this, but I was also concerned that people would send them things that end up not being useful for their collection and end up taking time and effort to get rid of.  So, following the example of annual book drive GuysLitWire hosts for Ballou Library, I thought the best approach was to create a list for people to buy from.  And what better way to start than with the suggestions from #KidLit4Justice?

Using the #KidLit4Justice tag and my own reader’s advisory knowledge, I created a list of 60 titles. I checked each title against the Ferguson Municipal Public Library District catalog to make sure that none of these titles are held at the Ferguson branch. Some were held at other branches in the system, some were not in the system at all. This first wave focuses titles that are about social activism, peace, building communities, healing from trauma, and dealing with emotions. There is a mix of fiction and non-fiction but they are all geared at children and teens.  Scott Bonner, Ferguson’s library director, has looked over and approved this list, so these are titles that will be welcomed and used at their branch.

Here’s the instructions (only slightly modified from GuysLitWire, thanks to the amazing Colleen Mondor for the guidance and inspiration!) on what you can do.  If you can’t buy a book for Ferguson, please share this list far and wide!

A wishlist for Ferguson has been created at Powell’s.

I chose Powell’s because they are an independent bookstore that has a huge stock and doesn’t have any of Amazon’s sketchiness. Feel free to check out the list, read more about the books, and make your selections as you see fit. While we prefer new it is perfectly fine to purchase used copies of a book , but make sure the book is in “standard” used condition. Also, if at all possible – especially when it comes to picture books – please select hardcover or library-bound.  These titles are more expensive, but they are better for library circulation.  (I’ve placed the preferred editions into the cart, but this is just a general reminder!)

Once you have made your selection(s) head to “checkout” and you will be prompted to inform Powell’s if the books were indeed bought from the wishlist. This lets the store know to mark them as “purchased” on the list. After that you need to provide your credit card info and also fill in the shipping address. (If you have already done this in the past the info will be saved to your Powells account.)

Here is where the books are going to:

Ferguson Public Library
ATTN: Scott Bonner
35 North Florissant Road
Ferguson, MO 63135
(314) 521-4820

I can’t remember if Powell’s lets you include a little note with your order, but if it does, feel free to do so. You can also share with @FergusonLibrary on Twitter so that you continue to boost the signal AND let them know what amazing books are coming their way.  Hopefully, if we get everything bought off this list we can use this method and work with Scott to add MORE titles of all kinds to their collection.

Ready to buy?  Ready to signal boost?  Ready to get these books on shelves in Ferguson today? Let’s go!

Please ask me any questions/make any suggestions in comments here or on Twitter.)

UPDATE

It took only a day to get 55 books sent to Ferguson!  Amazing.  So … I created a whole new list!  The procedure for sending them is the same.  Please let me know if you have questions, comments, or SUGGESTIONS!

MORE Books for Ferguson

If you’re having trouble linking to the current list, you can go to Powell’s “find a Wishlist” link and use the email booksforferguson @ gmail to locate the list called “More Books For Ferguson”.  Please let me know if you have other questions.

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