Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Meteorites! Fun Hands-On Science

Due to a scheduling hiccup, I filled in this past weekend for our regular monthly Fun with Science program. Usually, the program is helmed by a professor from the physics and astronomy department at Northwestern University. It's a popular program--we regularly max out our registration limit of 30 2nd-5th graders--so I didn't want to cancel. Instead, I stepped in to talk about meteorites with some hands-on activities.

First we talked about some of the terminology and the life cycle of these space rocks. What's an asteroid versus a meteoroid versus a meteor versus a meteorite? I put together a simple deck of slides with images to accompany this discussion, and I made sure to ask lots of open-ended questions to get kids thinking critically about our topic and also about their own previous knowledge. We talked a little about how scientists observe meteorite specimens, too, before launching into our first hands-on component...

Observing meteorite specimens! For this activity, I got 6 different types of fun size candy bars. I cut each bar in half to give a clear cross-section of the inside, then put each piece in a labeled plastic baggie. Each type of specimen was numbered so kids could keep track of their progress in observing meteorites.

I created a meteorite observation log with space for kids to sketch what they saw as well as use words to describe the specimens. I prompted them to look for layers and patterns, and describe what they found. Once it became evident that the specimens were really chocolate, the kids then wanted to hypothesize what type of candy bar each specimen was based on their observations. All in all, quite similar to observing rock specimens before submitting samples to formal tests (except, usually, no one asks if they can eat a rock).


Then we reconvened to talk a bit about craters. We compared evidence of meteorite impacts on the moon with those on earth, talking about atmospheres and weathering and erosion. The sample crater images I showed (all from NASA) depicted craters on earth that have become less and less visible over time, culminating in a seafloor scan of the Chicxulub--otherwise known as the crater formed by the meteorite impact that caused the mass extinction of the dinosaurs and other living things on earth at the time.

We did our final hands-on activity to demonstrate how meteorite impacts create craters. I had an aluminum baking tin filled with flour, as well as a golf ball, and kids took turns dropping or tossing the golf ball into the flour from different angles to see the types of impacts they made. The flour easily allowed craters to form, creating a great visual--especially in the instances when the force of the impact caused "earth" (flour) to scatter up and away from the impact point. The kids enjoyed the activity, both as a scientific demonstration and as an excuse to get a bit messy. (I would recommend doing this particular activity with a second set of helping hands, or a very orderly line, as there's always at least one kid who would like to just dig their hands into the flour if allowed.)

We wrapped up from there, with kids who attended alone rejoining their parents outside the room. All in all, our 50-minute science excursion was fun and, hopefully, informative for the kids. The professor will be back next month, but an interlude about meteorites can make for a good substitute.

The slides I created are below.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Let's Get Together, Better: Rethinking Collaboration at SXSWedu 2015

Until Thursday afternoon, my coworker Vanessa and I were in Austin, Texas, for the South by Southwest Education Conference, SXSWedu. Vanessa and my supervisor had submitted a proposal for a Core Conversation way back when, but due to my supervisor's being on maternity leave, I stepped in. Our topic was collaborations, and doing them better, so I was excited to co-facilitate the session and get to enjoy the rest of the conference besides.

So, collaborations. That's a topic we talk about all the time, right? Probably true, but especially since moving to Skokie and seeing how they do things with an entire department dedicated to community engagement, and with some of the reading I've been doing on my own, I'm recognizing that collaborations can be so much more than they typically are for public libraries and other community partners with education, literacy, etc. as an aim.

That's where Vanessa, the library's graphic designer, comes in. Vanessa has experience with design thinking; originally developed in the design world, it's a process for creating innovative ideas and for solving problems creatively. (For great info on design thinking as it pertains to libraries, check out the new Design Thinking for Libraries toolkit from IDEO.) Design thinking offers a framework of stepping back and thinking much more broadly and deeply than we might be used to doing.

How does that apply to collaborations, you ask? Well, consider a pretty typical collaboration between a public library and a school. The public library contacts the school and says, "Hey! We have this great storytime/tour/booktalk/etc. We can bring it to you!" And the school, if the timeline works, says, "Great!" Henceforth, both public library and school consider one another partners and/or collaborators.

While bringing a library service more squarely to a school audience is certainly a great thing, it's a pretty superficial partnership. Neither partner is really doing anything that they hadn't done before. Collaborations can go deeper to incur more impact.

Vanessa gave a brief introduction to design thinking, which ultimately allowed us to lay out a process for more transformative collaborations. Consider it a five-step process, if you will.

Rethinking Collaboration: A Primer Drawing from Design Thinking

Step One: Find the Right People


     I would venture to say that we've all been in a meeting at one point or another where the thought crossed our minds that "the people who really should be at this meeting aren't here." Or, conversely, you've heard about a meeting with a potential collaborator after the fact and thought, "I wish I had been there!" Having the right people at the table is integral for transformative collaborations to get started.

     What that means is that you want the people with both the passion and the capacity to act sitting at the table. That may mean you have to rethink your obvious choices for potential partners; for example, if the school principal is spread to thin, then they shouldn't probably be at the collaboration table. Their staff should absolutely fill them in on everything after the fact, but they're probably not the best in-meeting choice. The people you do want are those people who are intimately familiar with an issue or cause within the organization. They bring the background knowledge and contextual knowledge, and more than likely they agree to sit at the table because they care. A lot. Meaningful collaborations need people who have that passion and are willing to funnel it into action, even though that process will take time and work.

Step Two: Be Open


     You know everything you think you know about that organization with whom you want to partner? Forget it. Do not bring preconceptions to your meeting. This can be hard for a lot of people, especially in situations in which the parties pursuing a new collaboration have worked together before. But think of it this way: If you're a public library, do you think the school truly understands everything you're trying to do, and capable of doing? And vice versa? No. We do a whole lot that they couldn't possibly know about. But if everyone goes to the meeting with a set idea of who does what and what folks can contribute, it automatically starts to limit all the things you could come up with together. So be totally open to the fact that you just don't know, and that you're at the table, at least in part, to learn.

Step Three: Start with Questions


     Vanessa gives the best hypothetical for this step. Imagine your library or department wants a new logo, and you go to a graphic designer. The graphic designer shouldn't just say, "Great! You're a library! I know what a library is. I got this," and then send you mock-up logos in a few weeks. A great graphic designer is first going to ask you a ton of questions. About the library's history. About the people who work there. About the people who use library services. About service philosophy. Etc. etc. etc. All. The. Questions. Only then, with lots of contextual information and an idea of the vision of the library, will the designer get to the drawing board.

     The best question to include: What do you want to see in your community?

     By starting with lots of questions, you're doing two things: first, really amassing deep context for a potential partner and their goals; and second, breaking the superficial discussion barrier that can manifest in lots of meeting scenarios. Frankly, we're not always good about talking about ourselves; or, conversely, we assume that the person we're talking to already knows a lot about us. Both of these things lead to undertaking of valuable information about vision, services, mission, everything. By asking lots of question, and listening actively, we truly learn about what a fellow community organization is hoping to do.

Step Four: Share Your Plan


     After you've asked lots and lots of questions and listened thoughtfully to the answers, it's time for you and your organization to share your plan; that is, your vision, mission, goals, and services. This step is vital, because it is where all parties at the table can start to identify overlap. This overlap is the sweet spot for creating a transformative collaboration.

     If, in the course of question-asking and plan-sharing, you determine that you do not currently share any common goals for the community you and the other organization both serve, the time is probably not right for pursing a collaborative project. That's not a bad thing--in fact, it's far better to recognize that now is not the time before pouring lots of resources into a project that will have middling buy-in. Talk about how you can promote one another's services to your respective audiences, shake hands, and make sure to set up another meeting for six months down the line to see if shifts in goals have creating space for a collaboration at that point.

     And if you do find overlap? That means you two are not just driving on the same road headed for the same destination. It means you're in the same vehicle, truly moving together. That's a transformative collaboration.

Step Five: How Might We...?


     Once you've identified that, yes, there is a community need that we both have the resources and passion to aim to address, it's time to get thinking. It's time to ask, "How might we accomplish this mutually-agreed-upon thing that our community needs to be better?" Maybe this starts at the same meeting and everyone brainstorms ideas. Maybe you make plans to reconvene after everyone has had some time to think and will bring their own ideas (called "brainswarming," and arguably more productive than everyone-at-the-table-shares-ideas-live brainstorming). Either way, it's time to finally get to that stage where more traditional, yet ultimately superficial, partnerships start: the "I can bring this to the table" stage. You guys all know how to take it from here.

~~*~~

So that's what Vanessa and I talked about at SXSWedu: rethinking collaborations using design thinking, or taking a couple of steps backward in our usual partnership process so that we can try to do something truly transformative. Our complete slides from the session are below, and I want to particularly point you to the resources we include at the end in case you're looking for more information on this process, etc.



There was great audience participation and sharing at our session, too, with plenty of great ideas and collaboration troubleshooting tips flying across the room. It's our hope that, the next time you think, "Hey, we might be able to work with those folks next door," you have a toolkit to do so as productively as possible.



Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Voices of Race: Youth Programs to See and Celebrate Diversity

How do you help children to see the world from perspectives other than their own, especially in a developmentally appropriate way? That's been my driving question as I create programming for our annual two-month initiative, Coming Together in Skokie and Niles Township. Our theme this year is Voices of Race, and the premise is to facilitate the building of knowledge and appreciation for the diversity in our community. That's a tall order--often conversations on these topics are uncomfortable, in particular if they are in fact deep conversations and not just superficial platitudes. It's an especially tall order with children's programming, but as it's also vital to a mission for anti-racist librarianship, we've been offering these programs.

For the youngest crowd--preschoolers--I wanted to stick with a somewhat traditional storytime format. I approached my program for this age group armed with some brain research: specifically, that from a very young age children try to understand the world by categorizing everything they see and learn. That means the default setting for the young brain--and the foundation on which older brains are built--is a "these things are the same, these things are different" premise. When race and perceptions of race are socialized from such a young age, with the young brain automatically sorting information into "same" and, essentially, "other," this can ingrain a certain amount of racial prejudice without anything ever being specifically taught. My goal for this storytime, then, was to share stories, songs, etc., of people who might at first glance seem different from what the kids were personally familiar with, but who are ultimately much more alike the kids than different from them. Our goal was to work on seeing commonalities between ourselves and people who may not look, talk, or act like us. It was a very basic concept, yes, but it was developmentally appropriate for the 3- to 7-year-olds who were in the evening program.

This past weekend I had a program for school-age children. Called "A Day in My Life: An Intergenerational Program," the event invited children to bring a beloved caregiver with them to the library. In the room, each pair was given a simple book template I had created. The premise was for the child and caregiver to have conversations about what it's like living in 2015 for the child compared with what life was like for the caregiver when they were the child's age. The book had 5 different prompts to start these conversations:
  • "My name is ____, and I am __ years old." / "My name is ____, and I was your age in the year ___."
  • "I live in ____." / "When I was your age, I lived in ____."
  • "During the day, I ____." / "When I was your age, I would ____ during the day."
  • "In my free time, I ____." / "When I was your age, I would ____ in my free time."
  • "When I grow up, I want to be a ____." / "When I was your age, I wanted to be a ____ when I grew up."
My goal was to invite children to recognize that different people have lived different experiences than them, and having this conversation with a beloved adult helped to get conversations started. I heard some terrific interactions going on as the pairs wrote and draw in their books. One grandson learned his grandmother's first name for the first time. Another pair talked about Brown v. Board of Education, which had occurred in the year another grandmother was the same age as her grandson is currently; the grandson was rapt to listen to not only what the decision was, but his grandmother's memories of its impact. One table had three generations present, and throughout the conversations I could occasionally hear the middle generation saying "I didn't even know that about you." Families don't always have these types of simple, straightforward conversations, even though they make everyone feel closer. And if families don't have them, it's even more of a stretch to expect strangers to have them. So we've got to start somewhere.

I was so impressed with how the kids and their caregivers took the starting premise--a simple book with fill-in-the-blanks--and really expanded on it. One pair ended up making a list comparing facets of 2015 with facets of 1954. Another talked about all the different careers that are open to girls now that were effectively male-only 50-60 years ago. Each pair left the program expressing their thanks at getting them started in these conversations, and I encouraged them to keep talking--with one another, with other family members, with friends, etc.

Finally, for an older-ages program for the Voices of Race initiative, we brought in a teacher-artist from Chicago Slam Works, an organization supporting social justice through poetry. The teach-artist offered workshops for 4th-5th graders, junior high students, and high schoolers, each of which included an exploration of slam poetry and its power. The workshops really focused on the kids themselves reflecting on their own voices and stories, then putting those down to paper. Many shared their poems with the group--a practice that was uncomfortable at first, but ultimately rewarding. It can be hard to know, let alone share, our own stories, but there is power in them.

We can all benefit from listening to more voices, and seeing the humanity in each of them.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Selection is Privilege

There is a conversation happening on the Storytime Underground Facebook Group right now. It’s been going on for a few days, actually, and it seems to have started innocuously enough: with a question about folks’ thoughts on the Youth Media Award winners, asked by a person who expressed “major shock” and disappointment (via frown-y face emoticons) about one of the Caldecott honors. As I said; innocuously enough.

Some folks who added to the thread brought up the perennial gripe that not all the recognized titles seem to have much kid appeal; other voices jumped in to clarify that kid appeal is not part of the criteria for any of the major YMAs awarded by ALSC and YALSA. I find this argument annoying the same way I do a mosquito bite, because it pops up every year around the same time and is irritating but will disappear in a week. After all, there are awards that take kid appeal into account.

But. Then something ugly and uncomfortable popped up. People started talking about certain books not appealing to kids or their entire communities for one reason: because said certain books have diverse protagonists.

Things people have said*:
  • “Sometimes I pass on even well reviewed books because I know they just won't circulate. There aren't any Greek gods in it! I also have a difficult time getting uh, diverse books to circulate in my community. When I started my job and weeded the picture books a huge number of non circulating titles had POC on the cover. ‘Brown Girl Dreaming?’ That's a hard sell.”
  • “You can have my copy then. Because it won't circulate where I am.”
  • “I just know it's going to be a hard sell.”
  • “We have a copy, but I can count the number of black patrons my library has in two weeks on one hand. It is rural, middle class, white West Michigan. The only black author that circulates...at all...is Christopher Paul Curtis and that's because some teachers require it. It's not just the race of the characters either. If our young patrons want sports fiction they are going to choose Mike Lupica or Tim Green. The crossover has not circulated even one time since we got it. It's not like Kwame can't write. Acoustic Rooster checks out frequently.”

After reading the full thread and seeing this build-up of negative dialogue specifically around diverse award-winning titles in collections, I responded:

“I find it extremely problematic to suggest that a library doesn't need a book--award-winner or not--that features a minority protagonist on the basis that there aren't many readers of that minority who use the library. To me, that suggests both a bias on the part of selectors as well as a lack of trust in the readers we serve. We know verifiably that young readers do not only want to read about characters whose lives are like their own, and keeping them from even having the option to try a book about a person who is different from them is bordering dangerously on censorship. If a particular child does not want to read a particular book, so be it; but, especially in a public library, children should have that option.”

I am going to expand on that a bit.

First, and frankly, I find the position “because we don’t have X readers in my library, we don’t need X books” to be racist. This position implies that we as selectors view diverse books as inherently less-than. If we argue that only black youth will want to read about black youth, we are really saying that the experiences of black youth have no relevance or meaning to youth of any other race. We are saying that the experiences of the youth in the books we do buy have broader relevance and resonance. That is the very definition of otherizing and making a particular perspective, experience, or group less-than.

The position that “because we don’t have X readers in my library, we don’t need X books” also denotes a fundamental lack of respect for the children we are supposed to be serving. It suggests that we think our young readers cannot handle, relate to, or be expected to understand an experience that does not mirror their own. Not collecting—and collecting but not promoting—titles with diverse protagonists projects the selector’s own bias onto the reader instead of letting readers freely encounter stories and information.

Also, I feel very strongly that if the excellent diverse books in your collection do not circulate, you are not doing your job of getting great books into the hands of readers. As librarians, we can sell any great book to the right reader. We can find the aspects of a title that will appeal to the range of readers we serve. Diverse books have the exact same appeal factors as the whitewashed majority of children’s publishing. So we can be professionals and make our readers’ advisory about appeal factors, or we can continue to always take kids interested in sports reads to Matt Christopher or Tim Green instead of to Kwame Alexander. But if we do the latter, we are part of the problem. If we omit diverse titles from our RA even though those exact same appeal factors are there, we are perpetuating a racist status quo.

I want to take a moment to step outside of what I have to say on this topic and share what some other professionals have said*:
  • “Good collection development policies should emphasize a variety of things, but one of them should most definitely be diversity. The goal of a public library is not just to serve as a mirror for our community, but to serve as an open door to the world, which includes giving our communities opportunities to walk in the shoes of characters very different from them. This, to me, is part of our education goals, to help our patrons gain a broad perspective of the world. If books don't circulate there are things we can do to help promote circulation, including book displays, book talks, sharing book trailers and more. Yes, budgets are tight every where, but we should absolutely make sure that we actively are working to build diverse collections because it is an important part of helping us fulfill our primary mission to our local communities. And the idea that not one single person in our local communities wants or needs to read books that highlight diversity concerns me because it suggests that we don't have enough faith in our kids to learn, grow and step outside of their comfort zones.”
  • “I think it is a PRIMARY JOB of librarians, specifically youth services librarians, to promote and encourage diversity in our collections, budgets be damned. After all, I spend way too much of my money on crap like Barbie and Disney princesses ... which circulate like *gangbusters*. But if I went on just that, I'd have a very shallow collection.”
  • “The point: if the only way you know how to sell a book is ‘it's got brown people’ then you might've missed the point of the story.”
  • “If you want to champion diversity in a place where people are resistant, sell the story, not the character's color or orientation.”
  • “And I absolutely hate that people use the excuse 'well, they just don't circulate in my library.' That speaks the the librarian's failings.”

When it comes down to it, a major aspect of this topic is selection/collection development, and the fact that selection is a privilege. If you select materials for your readers, you are privileged to get to influence not only what children read, but what they have access to in the first place. And when I read arguments against including diverse titles, or questions about why we have to talk about this topic, it puts into sharp focus for me the fact that we have to recognize our privilege as selectors, and, more than likely, as white selectors for diverse readers.

If you find yourself thinking “I don’t need this title because we don’t really have many X readers here,” your privilege is showing. You have probably never had to open more than one or two books in a row in order to find a character who looks/speaks/lives like you do. That is privilege. And whether we intend it to or not, our privilege influences our thinking and our decisions. This is a problem because our decisions affect the capabilities of young readers to find books in which they can find themselves and in which they can meet new people.

Confronting our privilege is hard. It is uncomfortable. I am acutely aware that, because of my privilege as a white woman, I don’t have to write this post. No one would begrudge me for not speaking up on this topic publicly. In fact, it would probably be a lot easier, and I would seem a lot nicer, if I didn’t write this post.

But that course of action is no longer acceptable to me. I am no longer going to privately roll my eyes when professional colleagues make privileged statements about their exclusionary practices, or when reviewers ignore microaggressions in books for youth. I am going to say something, because ignoring it only lets it perpetuate. And when someone calls me out on something I say or causes me to think critically about my own practice, I am going to try really, really hard not to get defensive and to just listen and reflect and improve. It is hard. And I don’t need to do it.


Except that I do, because the ability of every child I serve to feel valuable and see themselves as a beautiful, complex individual is what hangs in the balance.

This is not about our comfort, or our personal convictions, or what we think we know definitively after doing this job a particular way for so many years.

It is about the children we serve. Every single one of them.


*Because these conversations have been happening in public forums (a public Facebook group and on Twitter), I feel that sharing direct quotations is not a breach of anyone’s privacy. I have made the decision to share these quotes without identifying the speakers, as my ultimate goal is constructive conversation about privilege in selection for youth libraries, not alienating or shaming members of the community.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Come work at Skokie Public Library!

Guess what? My library is hiring a Youth Services Department Manager! Skokie Public Library is a 5-star library and a wonderful place to work. The library is truly the heart of our vibrant village. There are so many fantastic, dedicated folks here, and you can apply to be one of them!

Preschool Play Area (photo by Skokie Public Library,
CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Job Title: Youth Services Department Manager

Opening Date/Time: Wed. 02/04/15 12:00 AM Central Time
Closing Date/Time: Continuous
Salary: $28.75 - $43.13 Hourly, $56,071.00 - $84,106.00 Annually
Job Type: FT
Location: 5215 Oakton Street, Skokie, Illinois
Department: Youth Services

Job Description

Are you a creative, passionate, and agile leader who has a strong understanding of child development? Do you have a vision for how libraries can provide children and families with an engaging public library atmosphere and spot-on recommendations for books, movies, and music? Bring your experience and expertise to Skokie Public Library as its new Youth Services Manager.

As a member of the management team, the Youth Services Manager will take the initiative to explore new ideas and trends impacting services to children and families. This work will involve frequent collaboration with other leaders in the organization and developing a talented group of staff members. Strong communication skills are essential.

Duties/Responsibilities

  • Develops, implements, and evaluates a service model for youth from birth through 8th grade
  • Hires, trains, and manages staff and reviews performance
  • Coordinates preparation of annual objectives for service to youth and oversees their execution
  • Plans and oversees implementation of a schedule of story times
  • Oversees an annual Summer Reading Program for youth
  • Works with staff from Learning Experiences to ensure a varied mix of program offerings for youth
  • Works with staff from Community Engagement to provide service to schools, pre-schools, and day care centers
  • Collaborates with members of administration and senior management team to ensure successful library operations
  • Interprets library policies and procedures to public and staff
  • Contributes to public services in the library, online, and in the community
  • Compiles and analyzes statistics and prepares annual report and periodic reports for Library Board
  • Selects and weeds materials in one or more areas for the children’s collection
  • Develops key community and professional contacts
  • Maintains current knowledge of library and other relevant industries (e.g. education, technology, and publishing)
  • Performs other related duties as assigned

Qualifications/Requirements

  • MLIS from an ALA accredited library school
  • Minimum five years' experience in public library service to children including supervisory experience, public desk experience, programming and collection development responsibility, and experience with technology in the library environment
  • Strong oral and written communication skills with people of all ages
  • Good knowledge of child development
  • Skill in use of computer for document preparation, communications, and scheduling

Click here for more info and to apply.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Where's the contemporary middle grade feminist realistic fiction?

Before the holidays, my supervisor asked me if I had any book recommendations for a friend of hers; the friend wanted to buy her daughter some great books for the holidays, but she wanted to make sure that they had strong feminist themes--good role models for strong girls, I believe is how she put it. "No problem!" I thought; I'd check my go-to resource for such inquiries: the Amelia Bloomer Project lists.

Amelia Bloomer, from the
Amelia Bloomer Project
website
Some background: Each year, the Amelia Bloomer Project identifies a list of titles (as far as I can tell, they don't have a limit to the number of books they can recognize) that fit a few criteria: 1) have significant feminist content; 2) excellent writing; 3) appealing format; and 4) appropriate for readers of a young age. I completely trust the folks who serve on this committee, and I look forward to seeing the titles they recognize each year.

Cut back to that readers' advisory request. When I went to peruse the past few years' Amelia Bloomer Project lists, I found something that startled me: there aren't very many contemporary realistic middle grade fiction titles on the lists. In fact, as I went back over the past 5 years of the award--during which time 50 middle grade fiction titles were recognized--only 6 titles could be classified as contemporary and taking place in the US. In other words, there weren't a ton of titles on the list for the girls* the award is meant to support that would reflect the everyday lives and situations they deal with.

So I went through all the lists available on the Amelia Bloomer Project website; that's a list each year starting in 2002. Here's what I found:
  • in the 13 years of the award (from 2002-2014), 95 middle grade fiction titles were recognized
  • 51 of those 95 titles are historical fiction
  • 15 titles are fantasy
  • 14 titles are contemporary realistic fiction set in the US
  • 11 titles are realistic fiction set outside the US dealing with location- or culture-specific issues
  • 3 titles are science fiction
  • 1 title is short stories
Breakdown of Amelia Bloomer Project middle
grade fiction titles, by genre (2002-2014)

Frankly, this breakdown strikes me as problematic. As I said, I have total faith in the Amelia Bloomer Project's committee members to read widely and truly identify the titles in a given year that they believe fit their award's criteria. So if they're recognizing the great contemporary middle grade feminist realistic fiction each year, to the result of an average of 1 title per year, that leads me to believe that perhaps not a whole ton of the stuff is being written and/or published. That's a problem for me and, I would hope, other librarians and feminists, too.

What does it do for the modern middle grade reader when the vast majority of great stories featuring strong girls are set in a time or place that is foreign--perhaps even alien--to their personal experiences of the world? That's not to say that historical fiction and fantasy don't have their merits, or that girls can only be positively influenced by stories filled with characters quite like them. But the relative absence of middle grade feminist books about everyday girls in everyday situations reminds me of how it's incredibly problematic that youth literature with black protagonists is more likely to be set during or before the Civil War (i.e., slavery) or during the civil rights era than to be set nowadays with black characters just being people.

Strong feminists in historical fiction are great. So are strong feminists in fantasy, etc. They can be inspirational, no doubt. But the beauty of strong feminists in contemporary realistic fiction is that it shows how there are strong feminists in everyday life and everyday situations--from going to school, to participating in a sport or club, to interacting with friends, etc. I can't help but wonder if there's some unconscious connection between the phenomenon of young women saying they aren't feminists and the possibility that they most often see feminists as tied to a historical time and place that is no longer personally relevant.

If we have more excellent contemporary realistic fiction with feminist themes for middle grade readers, today's girls--the ones in our libraries right this second--can see their strong feminist selves in the books they read. Not just the qualities that they want, or that they wish they'd have so they, too, could solve crimes with Sherlock Holmes/be strong during a fraught time in history/wield magic powers. But the qualities that they already possess and can put into use every single day. Because when it comes down to it, feminist values are not tied to a specific time or place. They are everyday. They have to be everyday.

So writers, publishers, librarians, take heed: we need more contemporary middle grade feminist realistic fiction. Readers need it. Let's get it into their hands. And let's make sure it's intersectional, too. Every contemporary girl, regardless of race, religion, culture, or creed, deserves to see strong girls like her in the pages of the books she reads. Can we work on this, please?


*I'm going to keep saying "girls" throughout this post, although obviously any person of any gender identity can read any book and find it meaningful and personally resonant


Monday, January 19, 2015

Thoughts on Supplementing Preschool Performance Programs

Have you ever hired a musician/magician/etc. for a preschool program, only to have some of the preschoolers trying to grab the performer's props while others wander at the back of the room looking for something else to do? It's a tough situation. And I hugely admire the performers who are able to smoothly go with the flow no matter what sort of not-ideal behavior is happening in the room.

What I just tried last week, however, was adding a few small elements to a preschool performance to hopefully prevent some of these frequent behaviors from becoming full-on disruptive. At our Polar Bear Bash last week, where we had hired a children's musician for a 45-minute program for 2- to 5-year-olds (plus siblings), I added two supplemental activities:

First, I opened the doors a few minutes before showtime and invited kids to stop first at a stick puppet station. I used die cut polar bears, popsicle sticks, and tape, and every kid got to make a quick puppet to hold on to for the duration of the program. Turns out, when kids have something to hold on to already, they're less inclined to try to grab the performer's props.

Second, I had a memory game set up at the back of the room. I love memory games because you can modify them for pretty much every age--for 2s, it's about simple matching of face-up images; for 5s, it's a full-fledged game of concentration. I used this template to print, mount, and laminate my own sets of Frozen memory games. With the cards set up at the back of the room, the kids who became temporarily dis-engaged with the main program could briefly play a quiet, productive game before refocusing on the performance. Bonus: the Frozen theme, seemingly universally beloved, meshed well with our overarching Polar Bear Bash concept. Cold things, yay!

The end result was a preschool performance with perhaps slightly fewer child-behavior-distractions than might normally occur. I'd consider that a win, especially with a pretty low-key investment in making the supplemental supplies.

What are your strategies for making preschool performances go as smoothly as possible?