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.

41 comments:

  1. Well said and so true, as professionals who influence the lives of children, it is vital that we constantly examine our own motives and convictions. If all we did was give children what they want, our collections would be nothing but Disney princesses and Dork Diaries. If we're not encouraging children to broaden their views and take a step away from their own reality, then why are we there? Why not read a selection of those "diverse" books, identify the ones of quality and impact and then do our job--encourage children expand their world.

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    1. As a school librarian, I'm ashamed to say that I only learned this year that the author of the Dork Diaries, Rachel Renee Russell, is African American. From her illustrated author image, I assumed she was white. :-/ I wish her photo were on her books.

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  2. Amy, this is amazing. First of all because you chose not to identify the origins of the quotes - so often these conversations end up being finger-pointing and blaming instead of actually discussions.

    Second because of this "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." Just. THIS. I agree, so so whole-heartedly!

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    1. 'First of all because you chose not to identify the origins of the quotes - so often these conversations end up being finger-pointing and blaming instead of actually discussions.'

      Perhaps/maybe that needs to happen, so that the people who are like this can be shamed enough to face up to their racism.

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  3. Well said, thank you for speaking up. I think these principles apply to adult selection as well.

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  4. I am sharing this with my students (Children's library services) today. Thank you for saying what I was thinking when I read that fb thread late last night.
    Cheers,
    Tess @tess1144

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  5. Thanks so very much for saying what has always bothered me. Though I have always stood firm in not giving into the narrower thinkers, I often do it more privately and silently. I, too, will speak up more often to share my convictions, question those that don't align, and advocate for what all kids deserve.

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  6. The Crossover is well written AND appeals to kids, since so many of my boys have read ALL of the basketball books I have! I borrow the Mitaliperkins Perkins "books as windows or mirrors" distinction, and encourage students to explore settings different from their own. They really enjoy it. I thought the Newbery list this year was the best one in a very long time!

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  7. YES YES YES YES YES. Thank you for putting this so eloquently into words, Amy. This post is a must-read and echoes my very thoughts on the subject.

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  8. Preach it, sister. Thank you for saying this.

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  9. Well written and excellent points raised. Please continue to speak up around your colleagues, eventually they'll catch a clue.

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  10. Preach it and speak truth to the awful power of ignorance. There is an ugliness that is stubbornly long-lived (been there my whole 40 year career). This is a fight that needs to be fought in years ahead. Thanks for taking up the sword and shield.

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  11. "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." Thank you. This is the root of the professional expectation.

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  12. Bravo Amy! You can't see it but I'm giving you a standing ovation! You raised so many excellent points and so eloquently. I worked in a community much like those described where books with diverse characters did not in fact fly off the shelves by themselves. But I never in a million years would have thought to NOT buy something for the collection or NOT display it or NOT booktalk it for that reason. It was my JOB to do those things! Thank you so much for this post-I'm sure it wasn't easy but it is necessary. -April

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  13. Bravo Amy! You can't see it but I'm giving you a standing ovation! You made so many excellent points and so eloquently. I really appreciate your thoughts. I used to work in a community much like the ones described where books with diverse characters did not in fact fly off the shelves by themselves. But I never in a million years would have thought to NOT purchase them for my collection or NOT display them or NOT booktalk them just for that reason. It was my JOB to do those things! Thank you so much for this post-I’m sure it wasn’t easy but it certainly was necessary.

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  14. My first two words are: THANK YOU! But then more words beg to be written, so I'll go there. Beyond issues of race, the assumption that any adult KNOWS what is needed/wanted/of use to a child in a library is dangerous. Suddenly there are no books on domestic abuse because that isn't a problem in X community. There are no books featuring characters with alcoholic parents because it doesn't happen here. Every child needs to find him/herself in a library book; every child needs to know that he/she is not alone. And equally as important every child needs the opportunity to read about "the other" so that the other is not seen as less-than but similarities are discovered and celebrated.

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  15. Thank you Amy for saying what desperately needs to be said. Every child deserves the chance to read books from all different kinds of cultures and it is our responsibility to make sure that this happens.

    Elizabeth

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  16. I attended a very white school in a very white area and I read books with African American characters. I didn't care. I didn't think about it. I wanted a good story. That's what you are "selling." I have a very hard time believing children will refuse a book based on the ethnicity of the character on the cover. They may be reacting to a book that looks too historical or literary--that would have stopped me, especially certain historical books, although I owned a good biography of Harriet Tubman that I liked a lot, I was not that into history. I think this problem pertains to grown-ups, not kids. I wanted a good story.

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  17. First, HOW did I miss this conversation? I'm in the group!!
    Thank you for this post! I know the pressure to weed books that have not/will not circulate is great but the need to expose your community to more than their small world is greater.

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  18. Amy, wow, thank you for speaking out. In SF, at the Western Addition Library branch, Nancy, the children's librarian, made sure that I always found that what I needed, but that mostly I didn't even know exist. What I got from her was this realization that in those shelves existed a wold of children's literature that was extraordinary beyond my imagination, and it was multicultural, multicolored, diverse, and rich. No only Latino books for the brown girl, but books that took me to unknown cultures and communities. I felt in love with children books. I was 25. Thank you for your brave posting.

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  19. Such important points here. I'm sharing with other selectors in my library, because I think this has applications all across the board. It breaks my heart to think that kids are going into these libraries, not seeing themselves represented, and getting the message that libraries are not for them. We have to do better than this.

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  20. When I was hired at a school that was 80% Vietnamese, I quickly discovered that the most popular book in the library was Gone With The Wind. In Vietnamese. I asked the girls if they knew they weren't white southern belles. They assured me that they knew who they were but wanted to read it anyway. I pointed out that the "sequel" had been published and wondered how long it would take for it to be in paperback. One girl said, "Would you like me to bring you one?" She did, and donated it to the library for others to read.

    I started adding Woodson to the collection and they were devoured. My standard question to students was, "What did you like about the story?" They ALWAYS told me the story and the feelings they had when they read the books. They never mentioned the color of the characters. Never.

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  21. Thank you for your post, Amy. At last year's Day of Dialog in NYC, Kwame Alexander spoke of the need for "diverse thinkers"--so true! To that end, we really must endeavor to celebrate, relish, and promote beautifully written narratives from diverse perspectives.

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  22. Thanks so much. This is a fantastic essay. I will share it widely.

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  23. Thanks for the post Amy. As a past selector for a large library system, I would hear this all the time from some librarians who were mad when I purchased books that they felt did not represent their communities--books much like Brown Girl Dreaming. If always made me feel sad and I realized that not every library was a magic place--although I had wonderful librarians at many other branches who never gave up and went against convention. As well, there is another issue not being acknowledged in our profession: anti-intellectualism. We went from collections that had no popular materials and plenty of elitism to collections averse to the literary and the intellectual and plenty of commercialism. Both times we embraced professional narratives that state we know better than individual children what they want to read or what they may find interesting and meaningful. Popular professional concerns have gone from statements like "they shouldn't read that" to "they wouldn't read that" without ever taking into consideration the possible instead of the probable and that this is a subtle form of censorship. We need to get back to that spirit of possibility every time we make a book recommendation, choose books for a website booklist, place a book on a display shelf, select a book for our collection, or pick a book for a storytime. Ranganathan stated "every reader, her/his book and every book, its reader". How we have come to let this ideal down. But then again, Ranganathan was an Indian man, so maybe he "just doesn't go" in some librarian communities.

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  24. Thank you SO MUCH for this. Talk about frowny faces--I was shocked and upset that librarians--people who are in a sacred position, with a sacred responsibility not just to their community, but our entire culture and nation--were taking such an incredibly narrow-minded and frankly censorious position.

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  25. Thank you for writing this! Beautifully said. As someone who is biracial (and has been mistaken for having many different types of heritage), I also cringe whenever people say "we don't have ... here." Don't be too quick to make assumptions about your patrons (or their family and friends). Besides, the beauty of books is that they are rooted in the particular but help us transcend barriers. All the recent research on fiction cultivating empathy attests to this. It's also funny how many consider race as the defining feature of some books, yet do not consider it as a factor at all when recommending, say, Jane Austen. Can you relate to an 18th century Englishwoman because she's white too, but not to a 21st century American woman because she's black?

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  26. Yes, yes, and yes...kids do not care until the adults who are molding them do, so let's all care on the side of diversity. And if you fear they won't circ, they won't - talk them up with no apology. Also it's probably time to ask what sacred cows are on our shelves that are "classics" in our minds but don't circ...circ wise a fresh copy of a diverse title may be a better bet than an unattractive older title or a title you personally love that hasn't found a reader recently, however sad that may make us
    (and if it really makes us sad, it's time to sell it to a new group).

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  27. I'm hoping readers of this blog post "Selection is Privilege" will reconsider the library world's general censorship of books by or about ex-gays. I reported on Annoyed Librarian for writing about this. One librarian even said I was a homophobe for suggesting libraries stop censoring exgay books. Would you censor such books? Why? What would Judith Krug say about your motivations?

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  28. The best books bring us to new ideas and perspectives and stretch our worlds and minds. I have cherished the moments spent with diverse characters in books such as" I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings", "I Am Malala", Black Elk Speaks, The Kite Runner and so many others. As a librarian, it has been such a privilege to be able to bring high quality, diverse literature to the hands of my patrons. Thank you for speaking out on this important topic, which olds true now more than ever.

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  29. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this deliciously eloquent and passion-filled post. I found myself saying "amen!" all throughout my reading of it. Your words mirror my passion and mission, and I feel refueled to go out and reach as many libraries and schools as I can in my corner of the world (West Michigan) with the message of how important diversity in children's books is for ALL children!

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  30. Another essential consideration in this discussion: if all of us who put books in the hands of majority children - writers, illustrators, parents, teachers, librarians - limit selections to those that look like them, we are contributing to the development of their unconscious bias. For their humanity, white children need images and narratives that challenge the centrality of the majority and introduce them to the rest of their family.

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  31. Thank you so much for taking the time to put into words what many of us feel in our libraries. Books are both windows and mirrors, and kids (and adults) need both. I love this "cheat sheet" that Grace Lin developed: http://www.gracelin.com/media/press/diversitycheatsheet.pdf where she emphasizes selling the story, not the ethnicity of the characters. I also think it's vital that kids see us, as librarians and teachers, reading diverse books. Putting up a "What is Mr./Ms. ______ reading?" sign always gets kids interested in what I'm reading. I also think we as school librarians need to be conscious of "hand-selling" diverse books to teachers who are looking for read-alouds and links to lessons.

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  32. Amy, I appreciate your position, and couldn't agree more that as Librarians we can help generate the enthusiasm in a young reader to overcome any biases that will keep them from opening a good book, and having the world open to them. It is one of the coolest parts of what we do.
    I did find one thought in your blog tricky or problematic, because, I think the argument can be problematic for exactly the situation you mention; the idea that children can enjoy a book, and barriers can be broken down when a child reads about someone who is different from them. The problem comes when I find myself arguing to have a collection represent the community it serves; arguing the critical need for children to be able to find themselves in the stories they read. Both points are true, and luckily, we can all read many many books with many stories. But it can be hard to argue diversity and identity in the same rationale. Adiche addresses this beautifully; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9Ihs241zeg

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    1. You have touched on an interesting point of tension--or, rather, it could be tension, or it could be a pursuit of balance in a collection. I would hold that both points are true, as you said: that collections should reflect their communities and also not be limited to their communities. I think this is possible, in theory, because we are talking about collections of hundred or thousands of items; we can find balance in having both statements accurately describe a collection.

      The deeper, more systemic issues, at least as I see them (and I very certainly may be wrong or ignorant of something), are that there is a gross imbalance in the materials that are published in any given year--that is, the body of published work skews white/heteronormative. This imbalance in supply impacts what we can add to our collections in our pursuit of a "balanced" collection. So we're trying to make balanced collections from imbalanced options.

      Also, as with many topics in our professional and cultural discourse, the issue is often boiled down to an either/or: either we reflect our community, or we collect beyond our community. That's a false dichotomy--we can, and should, do both. In particular, we should be mindful that this false dichotomy can be used to justify biases against collecting certain materials, against publishing certain books, etc. But if we can see the shelves we fill, the need for stories, as capacious, such prejudiced arguments--ones that reinforce systemic inequality--cease to be valid.

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  33. It's March and your post is still getting around. This is a very important delivery and I am relieved to hear compassion in your voice. I hope that this message continues to build momentum. The librarian profession has been looking like an all white social club and it is really more than that. Thank you for expressing some ethical issues that need to be brought to light. It is difficult to move from good to better, but you just did. Thank you.

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  34. Just reading now. I am an English teacher at a small school for gifted kids in L.A. Thank you!

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